The Family of Man

Time stretches while I reorganize 32 archival binders, holding an aggregate of 10,000 slide negatives. Images date back to 1982, a horseback safari into Kenya’s Maasailand that produced my first published photos. 

I set my loupe aside turning to miserly bookshelves in a former linen closet. Wedged beside my collection of Audubon Society Field Guides, a First Edition of The Family of Man (1955), a collection of black-and-white photographs created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 192-page book is a permanent depiction of the exhibition. 

Five-hundred-and-three photos were taken by 273 men and women—amateurs and professionals, renowned and unknown—images that astonish with grace and inventiveness. People close and far, born into hard labor with grit and dreams, in the company of heroes and essential workers, farmers and bridge builders, musicians and dancers, weavers and window washers, landlords and homeless, the loved and the lost. 

The failing spine is mended with tape from decades prior. I’m careful wading through the brittle pages where there’s so much life in stillness. Unlike washes of colors, the grays, blacks, and whites allow souls to shine through. The faces teach me to understand without words.

I see what cameras in 68 countries saw. “I belong here.”

I sit with The Family of Man long past midnight while a haughty wind hurls dead leaves at my window. The next morning I’m folded in flannel, my toes curling inside sheepskin slippers. There’s no reason to check the time. 

The wind has stopped. Now the salty sea smell creeps in. I settle into a comfortable calm in my office, bent over a sheet of 35 mm transparencies. There’s more than enough room for thoughts and impressions of life before shelter-in-place. For now I have no desire to venture out.

Sherry Shahan

Sherry Shahan lives in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. Her writing has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Confrontation, Oxford University Press, F(r)iction, Critical Read, and is forthcoming from Hippocampus and Fiddlehead. She earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.