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Childhood from the Inside Out: Photography at the Nelson-Atkins
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Helen Levitt, American (1913-2009). New York, ca. 1939. Gelatin silver print, image: 5 7/8 x 8 5/8 inches. Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.4240. © Courtesy Estate of Helen Levitt/Laurence Miller Gallery, N.Y.
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There is a justly celebrated photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, on location in Spain in 1933, of a young boy seen in relief against a white wall mottled with black splotches; the youngster, his hair closely cropped and his head thrown back, appears at first glance to be blind or perhaps a patient of some sort (he is wearing a white smock). In fact, he is waiting for an incoming ball (unseen) thrown his way.

Knowing the facts of the photograph change one’s feeling toward it, some; the composition of the Motherwell-like façade in the background and the lone, mysterious figure in the foreground creates a certain balance of imbalance. Contrast that with a photograph by the great mid-twentieth-century German portraitist August Sander: entitled “Farm Children,” one of six hundred portraits, most taken in unadorned style for the enormous project “Citizens of the Twentieth Century,” a young boy and girl stand at attention, faces-front, without any sense of posing—they might well be statues. The difference is not only in the photographer; it is a difference in what a child represents at a certain age, in a certain age.

The transparency of childhood is its mark of the aesthetic. A child is a blank page on which to be depicted (A.A. Milne’s recreation of his son Christopher Robin into the fictional animal-conversing boy); painted (Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy”); visualized on film (Truffaut’s autobiographical “The 400 Blows”); even made the muse of music (“Peter and the Wolf,” “Billy Elliot”). Photography, though, asks something more: it takes a living moment, often solitary or intimate, and sends it out into an unsparing world. The hubbub over compromising photographs that turn up on the Internet is the perfect example. If something nasty were written about a young actress, the worldwide response would be much more meager than any revealing picture. A photograph does not need to be translated.

Yet, in a sense photographs do need translations; the difference is that with a great image the viewer’s eye is led along lines that are both formal and emotional, rather than simply led astray. The aptly titled exhibition “Hide & Seek: Picturing Childhood,” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, serves to both challenge and acknowledge such a notion. The pictures (approximately fifty, drawn from the vast reserves of the Hallmark Collection that came into the Museum’s ownership several years ago) roam from a print by Lewis Carroll, who ventured into the new medium in the 1860s and 1870s, to a pair of naturalistic American scenes by Dorthea Lange the Godmother of Photojournalism, to a, for her, relatively chaste family portrait by Sally Mann, of her two daughters. The selection, a collaborative effort by curator April Watson and assistant curator Jane Aspinwall, leans toward the classic—Helen Levitt, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Cecil Beaton, Lewis Hine, August Sander—but the composition of the photographs in two small galleries leads to the parlor game of What is This?

Taking in the photographs from the beginning, with Carroll’s portrait of a young girl on a Victorian couch, the overall narrative suggests the story resides behind the camera. What was in Carroll’s mind when he took his picture? (He actually imagined that he might make his hobby into a new career, until history overtook his neat, sitting-room portraits.) Where and how did the photographers find these children? That answer takes the viewer in another direction, into the street photography practiced so eloquently by Levitt (who died earlier this year at age 95) and Brooklyn photographer and film director Saul Leiter; their shots on the stoops of everyday New York are black and white (of course!) but the viewer can feel the colors of the day, the walked-on cement, the painted bricks. Levitt’s picture in the exhibition, “New York,” is one of her most famous: three urchins coming out of an apartment building, each in an oversized Lone Ranger kind of mask. Sure, the composition of the children in front of the doorway on the left and the bricks on the right is right out of John Singer Sargeant; the difference is that Levitt’s children are anonymous (even without the Halloween masks) and always will be—except for that instant of serendipity when she plucked them out of themselves.

The exhibition’s thesis that childhood changed radically between the advent of Freudian theory in 1900 and the modernization of culture and industry is true enough, at least in the way that children were perceived after the First—and especially the Second—World War. Compare Lewis Carroll’s portrait of innocence to August Sander’s phlegmatic farm children roughly seventy years later: it is not only the childhood that seems drained out of the photograph. The life appears drained from the faces in a nation that increasingly defined how the national face should look. Looking at any of Sander’s pictures from his vast project, much of it done during the rise of the Weimar Republic, and the steady gaze burns back at the viewer. Sander photographed ghosts.

If the contemporary pictures such as Sage Sohier’s “Girl being prepared for a horse show, Sandwich, NH, 2004” (a large color image of a tiny JonBenet Ramsey look-alike standing still while adults cater to her outfit) send out a postmodern vibe of distress, a series of works circa World War II evoke the most complicated responses in the show. The images—two by Dorthea Lange, of a child and her mother as Federal farm loan clients, and a crowd of students in San Francisco’s Japantown reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in 1940; plus Beaton’s group portrait of five English children evacuated during the Blitz—are loaded in all sorts of ways. The photographers are documenting the specific children, but they are clearly meant to stand for all children in those chaotic contexts. As photographs, the situations that the children find themselves in appeal to the viewer emotionally. The photographers’ sympathies may lie with their subjects, too; yet if they are artists first they must envision something greater than mere documentation. Any one interpretation precludes another: these photographs are bolder yet more elusive than, say, BBC radio reporting of the time.

A photograph is ever only one moment in the story. With children, fictions and facts are interchangeable. If children have always played hide and seek, their quarry has shifted from where to whom they are. Photographers now seek to photograph the inner child. It makes for an unusual art form. Modern childhood is a game, a myth, and a business. We have come a long way from Kansas, Toto.

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