The “M.I.L.K.” show that’s just about to vacate Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall for London’s Science Museum leaves behind three handsome if overproduced books (“lavish” the publisher calls them) and some very mixed feelings. Frankly—make that shamelessly—based on “The Family of Man,” the phenomenally popular photo exhibition that Edward Steichen organized for the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, “Moments of Intimacy, Laughter and Kinship” is an earnestly middlebrow, doggedly multicultural collection of 300 pictures chosen to reflect the we-are-the-world theme. Like “Family,” which Steichen called “a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world,” this is a big-hearted “celebration of humanity.” But “M.I.L.K.” is also determined to be “the photographic event of our time,” and its preening self-regard is sometimes at odds with its bland good intentions.
“These images speak to all of us with clarity, universality and—to use that elusive and neglected word—joy,” writes Geoff Blackwell, the 36-year-old New Zealand publisher who conceived of “M.I.L.K.” and calls himself the project’s Chief Dreamer. There is certainly joy aplenty in Vanderbilt Hall on a sultry Saturday afternoon, where nearly 100 remarkably unhurried people filter through the show’s mazelike passages or watch its 12-minute video projection. If only because Moments of Laughter are scattered liberally throughout, the audience is prompted at regular intervals to share life’s hilarity. But there’s nothing forced about the smiles here or the air of general enjoyment. “M.I.L.K.” is easy, appealing, unironic, optimistic, and requires virtually no preparation. Walk into the installation and you’re immediately at home with the comfortable clichés of human-interest photography: giggling old ladies, adorable babies, mischievous urchins, loving couples, and the touching triumphs of the homeless and the handicapped. National Geographic exotica, classic Life magazine populism, and hometown newspaper kitsch combine to lull the viewer into a receptive, almost nostalgic mood. We’re not being challenged, provoked, or even mildly disturbed; we’re being stroked.
Based on the reassuring evidence of these photos, the world is one big happy place, so it’s no surprise that viewers tend to drift slowly through the exhibition’s corridors and loll on the floor beneath the video screen as if reluctant to leave. The relentlessly looping film, with its soothing voice-over and musical snippets by Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Ronan Keating, and postpunk Elvis Costello, is particularly insidious. Its tone is set by Kim Phuc, the naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl running down the road in Nick Ut’s famous photograph, now married with children and a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace. Phuc wrote a moving prologue to Love, one of the trio of “M.I.L.K.” books that also includes Family and Friendship (all from William Morrow at $50), in which she calls her photo “an accident of history,” and reminds us of “the millions of innocent victims who did not have a photographer to record their suffering.” But on the video soundtrack she seems determined to redefine suffering. Speaking of her expression in Ut’s unforgettable image, she asks us to “try not to see it as a cry of pain. Try to see it as a cry for peace.” Phuc then shows us a 1995 photo (included in Family) in which she turns her bare, deeply scarred shoulder to the camera and hugs her baby boy. Love, apparently, conquers all.
This segues into a lovefest (cue Celine Dion) of color and black-and-white images, some of which are reproduced on large panels that enclose the video viewing space like an accordion-pleated cocoon. But the mood shifts and another voice, that of American photographer Jack Dykinga, comes in to introduce a suite of photos he took of a friend during the last days of his battle with brain cancer. The six photos that fade in and out on the screen—of the dying man and his wife—are quiet, lovely, and characterized by passionate restraint on both sides of the camera. (They appear together in the exhibition itself and in one of Love‘s several gatefolds.) Inevitably, they’re followed on film by a slew of pictures of newborns and babies—only a fraction of the many toddler shots that made the show’s final cut. The music swells a few more times before the video goes dark, but I’d already slipped out to follow its predictable preoccupation with birth, death, love, and marriage through the maze of small, Plexi-enclosed photos across the hall.
Here, each image is identified by photographer, country, and a brief descriptive text: “An aboriginal brother and sister in Queensland, Australia,” “A wedding in Omaha, Nebraska, USA,” “In Dhaka, Bangladesh, one brother, crippled since birth, is carried by his twin,” “In Vàc, Hungary, a Gypsy family mourns the death of 14-year-old Krisztian, stabbed by classmates who claimed that he was a racketeer.” This last picture, with its operatic swirl of emotions focused on the visibly wounded child in his coffin, is more than a little anomalous in a context that prefers discreetly telegraphed death. But with all the effusively bubbling humanity here, even a minor jolt is welcome. There’s another one around the corner with Davy Jones’s shot of two bearded, bare-chested men in kilts embracing at the Gay Pride Festival in London. It’s defused slightly by a neighboring picture of two young Indian women holding hands on their way to a Calcutta market, and is missing the support of Evzen Sobek’s photo of two male “members of the Gypsy community of Brno, Czech Republic” cuddling in bed together, which is included only in the Love book, so the Jones picture’s token queer presence is all the more pathetic. (For its American venue at least, “M.I.L.K.” has also opted to avoid photos of women’s breasts—unless they’re being suckled by an infant—and children’s genitals, although that material appears in the books.)
All this is very much in the “Family of Man” mold, with one major exception: Of the 275 photographers from 164 countries gathered for “M.I.L.K.,” only a handful have a reputation outside the field of photojournalism. Steichen’s exhibition rounded up work by the great photographers of his time, including Dorothea Lange, Roy DeCarava, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Lisette Model, Brassaï, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, and Irving Penn. Not one comparable name is involved in “M.I.L.K.,” with the exception of Elliott Erwitt, a “Family” contributor who served as chief judge of the massive competition that project organizer Blackwell set up and got funded. Although international competitions aren’t exactly magnets for established photographers of any stripe, Blackwell’s $750,000 prize pool drew 17,000 entries and netted him several Pulitzer Prize winners along with a host of talented unknowns and lucky amateurs—none bad, none distinguished.
The resulting show and its companion books make no demands on their audience and offer only the flimsiest, most illusory rewards. No one will go broke reassuring us that the world is really a peaceful, loving place, but what do we get out of it but more self-congratulatory smugness? Blackwell might share Steichen’s one-world philosophy, but his idealism is tainted by opportunism, and without Steichen’s concern for the art of photography, he can’t back it up. Though it was hardly a celebration of the avant-garde, “The Family of Man” was a showcase for artists of genuine vision and stature. Absent that vision, “M.I.L.K.” has nothing of substance to offer—just an unabashedly lavish dose of secondhand conservatism and happy-face populism.