The Family of Man has sold more than 4 million copies

The Family of Man was a photography exhibition curated by Edward Steichen first shown in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 503 photos by 273 photographers in 68 countries were selected from almost 2 million pictures submitted by famous and unknown photographers. The photos offer a snapshot of the human experience which lingers on birth, love, and joy, but also touches war, privation, illness and death. His intention was to prove the universality of human experience and photography's role in its documentation. More than 9 million people viewed the exhibit in 38 countries.

The exhibit was turned into a book with an introduction by Carl Sandburg, Steichen's brother-in-law. The book was published in the 1950s, and reprinted in large format for its 40th anniversary. It has sold more than 4 million copies (as of June 2010 Wiki)

The Americans by Robert Frank

With the aid of his major artistic influence, the photographer Walker Evans, Robert Frank secured a Guggenheim grant in 1955 to photograph across the United States. He took 28,000 shots over two years, with only 83 finally selected by him for publication in The Americans.

Les Américains was first published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris, and in 1959 in the US by Grove Press, where it initially received substantial criticism. Popular Photography derided his images as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." Though sales were also poor at first, Jack Kerouac's introduction helped it reach a larger audience because of the popularity of the Beat phenomenon. Over time, The Americans became a seminal work in American photography, and is considered the work with which Frank is most clearly identified.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the first publication of The Americans, a new edition was released in 2008. Two images were changed completely from the original 1958 and 1959 editions. (Wiki)

Looking at Photographs
100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art
Edited with text by John Szarkowski

"In 1962, John Szarkowski was chosen by Edward Steichen to be his successor as Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City where he served for almost thirty years. Through his direction and criticism, Szarkowski defined how photography was to be written and spoken about". (The Daily Flashkube)

Originally published in 1973, this collection of photographs with accompanying texts by the revered late Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski has long been recognized as a classic. Among the outstanding figures represented here are Hill and Adamson, Cameron, O'Sullivan, Atget, Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, Weston, Kertész, Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Lange, Brassaï, Ansel Adams, Shomei Tomatsu, Frank, Arbus and Friedlander. Reissued with new digital duotones in 1999.
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What are the Top 3 Selling Photography Books of all Time?

My personal view is The Family of Man, continuously in print since 1955, is the #1 best seller. Informally I polled colleagues, friends and professional acquaintances asking what their considered opinion of the Top Selling Fine Art Photography books (of all time) are. My criteria: stick with what we all generally consider "Fine Art Photography" as the qualifier; and no photo books of cute babies, "Popular Photography" How To or Photo-Help books.

The Family of Man and Robert Frank's The Americans were mentioned by almost everyone for the Top 3. Diane Arbus and Ansel Adams tied, followed by Szarkowski's Looking At Photographs, Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography, Robert Capa's Images of War and Richard Avedon's In The American West. No one mentioned Cartier-Bresson, but he should be right up there. Several people mentioned Larry Clark's Tulsa and Susan Sontag's On Photography. Where do the books of Steichen, Brassaï, Weston, Bill Brandt, Andre Kertesz, Margaret Bourke White, Dorothea Lange, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Irving Penn, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Lee Friedlander, Tod Papageorge, Elliott Erwitt, Weegee and Edward Curtis fit in? I look forward to your thoughts about the choices I've posted.

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Rixon Reed, Director of photo-eye Books and Gallery. Family of Man is right up there along with Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus book and of course, Jock Sturges. Two of our all-time bestsellers are Larry Clark's Tulsa and Teenage Lust. What we need here are cold hard facts. Publisher print runs are hard to find. Certainly the number of printings a book goes through helps in surmising its popularity. Michael Kenna's Japan would be on photo-eye's list too, but I doubt that it ranks up there with more widely distributed titles.

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Andy Adams, FlakPhoto.com, Publisher + co-curator 100 Portraits–100 Photographers at the Corcoran Gallery. I'd certainly assume that The Family of Man is in the mix, probably followed by The Americans. Do Uncommon Places or American Prospects make the cut? John Szarkowski's Looking at Photographs was an early favorite for me, and now that I'm reading Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment again, I'd say it certainly belongs in there somewhere, though I doubt it'll best-sell anytime soon ;)

Paul Kopeikin, Director of Kopeikin Gallery
Arbus? The Americans?

The History of Photography, Fifth Edition by Beaumont Newhall

Darius D. Himes, Acquisitions Editor, Radius Books + co-author of Publish Your Photography Book. "I would have to say** Family of Man, The Americans, and 100 Photographs by Szarkowski. But I would argue that The Family of Man doesn't qualify for Fine Art Photography Book, at least not the way we think of it now. Why? Because in it's day, it was designed (I'm talking about the show and the book) as a generalists approach and view of photography and the world and the show was extremely successful from a numbers viewpoint. Tens of thousands of people came through MoMA's doors and it had unprecedented popular support. The photographers included were almost all exclusively magazine shooters and the reading public was already familiar with much of their work through the popular magazines of the day (Life, Look, etc). (This has nothing to do with whether I think the photographers included were good or not or artists or not. Obviously, they were; Frank, Cartier-Bresson, Smith, etc were all included and they have all been canonized as artists.) So if we include The Family of Man, we probably have to include many of the National Geographic books from the last three decades which easily sold more than Frank's The Americans (again, my guess).

** This is based on a whole bunch of subjective opinions on a Friday morning no less, and not many facts... It's like guessing which book made the most emotional/overall impact on the consciousness of the fine-art photography community. If you had asked the question that way, I'd probably still say the same three books I started with. I guess I might switch out 100 Photographs for This History of Photography by Beaumont. If you think about it's use as a textbook over the last 5 decades, it's probably a bestseller."

On Photography. Essays and Critism by Susan Sontag

Eric Miles, Director photo-eye Auctions & Rare Books
For sure Family of Man; Diane Arbus Aperture monograph....but this is just anecdotal. Realistically, you might be looking at either some sorta kitsch like Anne Geddes, or something unexpected from a Time-Life series.

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Melanie McWhorter, photo-eye Books, co-founder of Finite Foto
The Americans by Robert Frank, Sontag's On Photography, Edward Weston's Daybooks and Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography still continue to sell and be reprinted. I am sure I can think of some others soon to throw on the list. I am not sure how you would find out who is the "winner," so to speak.

In Wildness is the Preservation of the World. Photographs by Eliot Porter

Alan Henriksen, Photographer
Eliot Porter's "In Wildness is the Preservation of the World" has sold over 1 million copies to date
! (read about it here)

Russ Martin, photographer
Upton and London's textbook Photography (10th edition)

Tulsa Photographs by Larry Clark
William Eggleston, 2-1/4 (Twin Palms)

Lauren E. Simonutti, Photographer Edelman Gallery
Robert Frank 'The Americans', Joel Peter Witkin 'Gods of Earth and Heaven' and Larry Clark 'Tulsa'

Todd Walker, Photographer
William Eggleston's Guide
(Essay by John Szarkowski, MOMA)

In the American West
Book and Exhibition Design by Elizabeth Avedon

EJ Carr, Photographer
Avedon. In the American West

Joseph-Philippe Bevillard, Photographer In my opinion, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank The Americans, and Richard Avedon The American West. These were shown most of the time in photography courses all over the world.

Ansel Adams The Camera/The Negative/The Print

Anthony Jones, London-based Photographer
Susan Sontag's On Photography and
Ansel Adams
The Camera/The Negative/The Print

Randy Magnus, The Kona Times
Ansell Adams

Danae Falliers, Photographer
Robert Frank The Americans

Cartier-Bresson The Decisive Moment, 1952
"There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment."

Cartier-Bresson achieved international recognition for his coverage of Gandhi's funeral in India in 1948 and the last (1949) stage of the Chinese Civil War. He covered the last six months of the Kuomintang administration and the first six months of the Maoist People's Republic. He also photographed the last surviving Imperial eunuchs in Beijing, as the city was falling to the communists. From China, he went on to Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where he documented the gaining of independence from the Dutch.

In 1952, Cartier-Bresson published The Decisive Moment. It included a portfolio of 126 of his photos from the East and the West. The book's cover is by Henri Matisse. For his 4,500-word philosophical preface, Cartier-Bresson took his keynote text from the 17th century Cardinal de Retz: translated "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment". Cartier-Bresson applied this to his photographic style. He said: ""Photography is simultaneously and instantaneously the recognition of a fact and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that express and signify that fact". (wiki)

Robert Capa and Paul Strand

Anthony Jones, London-based Photographer
I just bought 'Images of War' by Robert Capa, some book!

Observations, 1959. Photographs by Richard Avedon, Commentary by Truman Capote. Nothing Personal, 1964. Photographs by Richard Avedon, Text by James Baldwin

Not Big Seller's - but awe-inspiring Book Design! Observations designed by Alexi Brodovitch Nothing Personal designed by Marvin Israel

Matthew Smith, Photographer PYMCA
Not sure about how many copies they sold but Exiles by Joseph Koudelka and The Lines of My Hand by Robert Frank should both be in there...

Jean Ferro, President of Women In Photography International
Since Time/Life did the series on photography books (including the Art of Photography, 1971) would their series of books make this list? They had a huge distribution arm. Still think someone knows the TOP 3. How else do publishers decide to run with a book unless they feel it can meet a sales quota.. that compares to...? What top 3!

Walker Evans

Susan May Tell, ASMP/NY Fine Art Chair, Photographer
Family of Man was my 1st photo book ever - a gift from my college roommate (now President of the Phoenix Art Museum's Contemporary Forum). I used to look through it all the time and is probably one of the reasons I bought a camera and became a photographer. Roy DeCarava & Langston Hughes - Sweet Flypaper of Life and Walker Evans & James Agee - Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Marla Bane, Reach Media Inc., Senior Vice President
Walker Evans Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The Lines of My Hand by Robert Frank

Robert Frank's autobiographical The Lines of My Hand, considered by many to be one of the most important photographic books of the 20th Century, was first published in Japan in the early 1970s as a deluxe, slip cased edition. In 1972 it was issued as a paperback edition by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press, New York.

Garry Winogrand Animals

The Animals was first published as a paperback by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1968; they brought the title back into print as a hardcover book with dust jacket 36 years later. John Szarkowski, then Director of Photography at MoMA: "Winogrand's zoo, even if true, is a grotesquery. It is a surreal Disneyland where unlikely human beings and jaded careerist animals stare at each other through bars, exhibiting bad manners and a mutual failure to recognize their own ludicrous predicaments." —Szarkowski, 1977

Peter Beard Eyelids of Morning and End of The Game

Ptolemy Tompkins, author The Divine Life of Animals and Paradise Fever
Eyelids of Morning, The Last of the Nuba (
Photographs by Leni Riefenstahl), and The Book of Life come to mind...And there was a time when A Very Young Dancer was inescapable.

Blake Andrews, author Rumblings From The Photographic Hinterlands...

Read Blake Andrews contribution of current Amazon rankings

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Except for Images and Where otherwise Noted:
Content Copyright © Elizabeth Avedon 2010, All rights reserved.


Susan May Tell said...

Great list! I love it.

Am thrilled that Family of Man, which influenced me so much, made the list.

Wish the books of Andre Kertesz, Roy DeCarava, Lee Friedlander, Alex Webb were among the best-sellers. Sigh.

Thanks for putting this list together

JG said...

Best selling photobooks? If the criteria is units moved then I don't think any of the wonderful books mentioned are in the same league with Annie Leibovitz's Women or any of those creepy baby books that Anne Geddes produces. Neither are my cup of tea and Geddes definitely doesn't meet the definition of fine art, but they both crossover to mainstream markets and sell the hell out of books.

Dallas Arts Salon said...

I have a 1st edition of "The Family of Man" published in 1955 that I got for a song at Half-Price Books about a year ago. It was one of those "OMG" moments and is one of my treasures. I just took some photos and love the 2 inscriptions of prior owners from 1970 and 2007. Thanks. Marla


Dallas Arts Salon said...

When I was looking for the Family of Man book, I also came across 2 others that I thought might qualify foe the list: "100 Years 100 days" by Manuel Alvarez Bravo and "Platinum Prints' by Irving Penn. Our library is scattered throughout our house and not organized in any way, shape or format. Marla

Liz.Blog said...

Marla, Yes, I had brain a freeze...Irving Penn and Bravo! Thank you!

Unknown said...

The world's best photographers! Wow. So many incredible images to take in all in one post. I'll have to come back to this post as a resource. It is so comprehensive.

Avedon (any relation?, ;-) Arbus and Bresson are three of my favorites.


Caio Fern said...

What a post , so exiting .
I really didn't know that "Les Americains" ( so cool to call this way ) wasn't well recieved by critics at the time . A real surprise.
Other surprise is "Im The American West". I would always put this on the top as is extremely famous out of USA , maybe more than the 3 tops of this post . With sure more famous than John Szarkowski. Not counting that even today all the time I read an interview with young photographers many of then talk about the book as influence.
The family of Man on this list!! wow!!! I would never guess. See, I really don't have a clue about "fotografia" or selling books.
Maybe the Top Selling Photography in USA aren't the same most popular around the world , even most part of the best sellers around the world beeing American Photography.
Again , fantastic post. Ideas like this make passion for photography just grows more and more .

Britney Anne Majure said...

Thanks Elizabeth for this post! And maybe everyone should quickly head to Half Price Books, as I also bought my first edition of The Family of Man there.

DavidCarol.com said...

One of my favorites and I would assume an all time big seller-Weegee's Naked City!

Britney Anne Majure said...

One more to add maybe is Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.

Bruce Barone said...

Great List.

Although I do agree with Susan.

And I could think of a few others to add to her additions.

Amazingly, I have most of these here at home!

Carlos Lorenzo said...

I prefer The Americans. But I have to congratulate you on this list. It's been great to read this post. Thanks!

J. Karanka said...

On Photography by Susan Sontag and On Being a Photographer by David Hurn and Bill Jay. I always find that they are surprisingly more read and sold and owned than any photobooks. I probably know more people that have them than The Americans or The Family of Man... maybe because influential general texts you have just a handful, but photobooks you have for everybody's taste!

Fraction Magazine said...

Terrific list. I should add a couple to my holiday list.

Thanks for writing this.

Susan May Tell said...

Because of this blog, I re-looked through Family of Man last night. Love it as much now as I did then.

Although not sure what it means - my favorites back then when a photo virgin (i.e. never had a camera or even taken a photograph) are mostly still my favorites. Those images have stayed in my mind's eye for decades.

Roy DeCarava's 'Man walking up Stairs' is there!!

Erwitt, Doisneau, Faurer, Lange, Brandt, Winogrand, Orkin, Frank, Smith, Levitt, Brassai - and oh so many more!!

Am glad this book is still selling because it was and remains a great introduction to photography.

Portsmouth Photographers said...

Robert Capa was a great influence on me as a student- his images were so powerful and always had interesting stories behind them. Grant

Willson Cummer said...

Anything by Robert Adams deserves to be on the list!

Frank Zweegers said...

Nice list of books. Interesting.

Henry said...

I'm confused. Are we talking about "the best" or "the best selling?"

Doug Brewer said...

I'd think Sally Mann's "Immediate Family" would rank up there somewhere. It's a constant source of inspiration to me.

Christopher McLallen said...

Great list on the best selling but how about a list of the finest crafted? These two come to mind:

Richard Avedon: Made in France
Carlo Mollino Photographs 1956 - 1962

Meera Rao said...

what a list -- I have to get busy and try to find a few of those :)

Tom Leininger said...

I am pretty sure that Brian Lanker's I Dream a World has sold very well, if this list is about books that have sold. Yann Arthus-Bertrand I am guessing has sold well too.

tim atherton said...

Best Sellers?

Probably most of those we'd like to be on the list either didn't sell well at all or were never published in large numbers.

The majority of "art" photography books (including the likes of The Americans) are really either too esoteric or too expensive to appeal to enough buyers.

Any photography book that relies just on sales to photographers and "photographic art" enthusiasts is never going to sell in large enough numbers.

BUT if we are going to include the like of The Family of Man, then best selling photography books would have to include the likes of Vanishing Breed by Bill Allard or The Creation by Ernst Haas (the later was published in paperback by Penguin and was in print for years if I recall correctly)


Irving Penn is at the top of my personal pantheon. I couldn't think of any proper photography book shelves without "Passage". I couldn't think of any bookshelves about Art in general without a book by Penn.

London Archaeologist and the Windowless Consultant said...

But who knows what Dyer's doing there, a whole book dedicated to skirting thought while vaguely appearing not to. Never heard anyone try to claim anything interesting for it, either. I agree, though, that, if such a list is to include theory, Barthes' surely belongs - apart from its intrinsic merits, a criterion which doesn't seem necessarily to be the object of the list (?), it is of course one of the most discussed and controversial of books amongst academics, a staple under students' arms, and as common as Sontag's on the shelves.

Christopher Andrews said...

Brilliant blog entry as always. Some books are currently in my library and I am set to look out for others. I have started my own blog of images and ideas that inspire me and perhaps others as well.
I hope you enjoy.

Christopher Andrews said...

Thank you for the comment about my portfolio blog. I was not sure how to reach you in regard to your question, so I returned here. The photo of Cleopatra's Needle is of one in Rome. I believe that Napoleon took two significant ones during his campaign to Egypt. He brought one back to Paris and one to Rome. The one with the cross is the one in Rome. I was surprised to see that too. The one in Paris now has a gold cap, like the pyramid.
I have also enabled comments for the blog.
Thank you again.

rephotographica said...

I know I'm late to the game, but it is interesting to consider actual sales numbers. Aperture would have good numbers for the Arbus monograph and their editions of The Americans.

Szarkowski's The Face of Minnesota was on the New York Times best-seller list for a while when it came out in 1958. I'm not sure how many photobooks can claim that distinction.

rephotographica said...

p.s. Tim Atherton's comment of 11/19/10 (boy, I am late to the show on this one) identifies the issue quite effectively. I can think of others, like Joel Meyerowitz's books on redheads, summer, and Cape Cod; Tony Mendoza's little book on his cat Ernie; Madonna's Sex; Annie Leibovitz; Photo Poche black books and Aperture's early monographs, very affordable and still being published.

Anonymous said...

A Day in the Life of America (1986) was on the NYT bestseller list for 56 weeks and sold 1.3 million copies