Songs of the People

February 16, 1992

Nearly 40 years ago the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City mounted a landmark exhibition entitled "The Family of Man." The brainchild of curator Edward Steichen, the show brought together hundreds of images from around the world in a celebration of both the diversity of humankind and the common bonds all people share. Shown in museums around the world -- in China over 1 million people came to see it -- "The Family of Man" became the most widely seen photographic exhibit in history.

Now the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., has unveiled a stunning new exhibit that it hopes will be equally popular. Entitled "Songs of My People," the show includes the work of 53 leading black photojournalists who in 1990 traveled across America to capture the richness and diversity of African-American life. Concerned that so many media images of blacks reinforce negative stereotypes, the Corcoran curators and photographers set out to capture the texture of daily experience of ordinary people who rarely make headlines yet lead extraordinary lives.

The 150 pictures that make up this exhibit -- whose opening yesterday coincided with this year's observance of Black History Month -- constitute a loving self-portrait of black America today.

The photographs are a window on a world where children cavort on city sidewalks and rural churchgoers prostrate themselves before rough-hewn alters; where circus performers await their cue and prison inmates submit to Sisyphean toil; where doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers and showgirls, construction workers and coal miners quietly get on with the business of life or rage against it.

These pictures reveal things we may never have seen before, or remind us of what we have always known. Black America's diversity is the endless diversity of America itself, in all its grandeur, pathos and frivolity. Who cannot empathize with the comical discomfort of a boy getting his hair cut in Brooklyn; or admire the easy grace of a cowboy roping steers in Texas; feel the wonder of a 10-year-old at NASA's space camp in Huntsville, Ala.; or the despair of a teen-ager in Watts?

The images of "Song of My People" pour forth seemingly inexhaustibly until the exhibit becomes a song of all people everywhere, a testament to each individual's uniqueness in the cosmic tapestry. Thus does the camera's eye illuminate truths as old as the world and as puzzling ultimately as the human condition itself.

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