• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 09th February, 2010

Kansas melts the boundaries of childhood

The picture dosage of Prevention Action – one a day – tries to show the situation of children and their families around the world, drawing chiefly on news agency sources, occasionally dipping into historical collections.Hundreds of photographs are added to the agency supply every hour. Sometimes in the relationship between the lens and the child's eye there is the detectable after-image of a transaction. Very often the child is made the focal point of calamity: war, earthquake, genocide or disease, and in these cruel settings the face provides the photographer with a "workaround" for our compassion fatigue.A child's compliance in return for our sympathetic concern – that's the deal.Representations of childhood as opposed to children are rather different. A child may be real enough; childhood is something society constructs and continually remodels.The US Nelson-Atkins Museum has been making the point, including work by 42 photographers in an exhibition called Hide & Seek: Picturing Childhood whose season in Kansas City ends in the middle of the month.The Nelson-Atkins became one of the world's most important archives of photography in 2006 when it acquired The Hallmark Collection from the card company. The donation of 6,500 mostly American works by everyone from Edward Steichen and Alfred Steiglitz to Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman was valued at around $65m at the time."Childhood, as a phase of life distinct from adulthood, is a modern, Western construct," says associate curator of photography April Watson. "As society changes, the parameters defining childhood have become increasingly mutable." "We wanted to explore a variety of concepts and themes, from romantic notions of innocence as seen in the pictorialist work of Gertrude Käsebier, to documents of childhood's harsher, social realities, as seen in the photographs of Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange," says Watson's co-curator colleague Jane Aspinwall. "In selecting contemporary works, we included photographers such as a Sage Sohier and Julie Blackmon, who touch on more current trends, like over-involved parenting and over-scheduled families."Their catalog scans the changeable history of childhood, from its invention in the seventeenth century, via Freud's deconstruction of "innocence", to the modern upheavals in economic and family structures, which, the authors argue, have tended to melt the social and biological boundaries by which it was originally described. "It is not surprising that Gertrude Käsebier's idealized Pictorialist visions of carefree children at play emerged at the same historical moment as Lewis Hine's social-reform documents of child laborers in mills, mines and factories. Though working with distinctly different purposes, both Käsebier and Hine operated from the same belief: the moral necessity of protecting children from the corrupting influences of the adult world." • Helen Levitt's iconic photographs of children on the streets of New York in the 1940s (see above) "capture the imagination, joy, and frequent aggression inherent in childhood play". Shown on another PA page, Frederick Sommer's Livia – his only image of a child – is described in the catalog as “a canny metaphor for the complexities of human nature in the guise of a portrait of one very intense young girl”. Other photographers include Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Keith Carter.

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