PHOTOGRAPHY

A world of their own

Photographs evoke the mystery of childhood

GLEN ALLEN August 27 1990
PHOTOGRAPHY

A world of their own

Photographs evoke the mystery of childhood

GLEN ALLEN August 27 1990

A world of their own

Photographs evoke the mystery of childhood

PHOTOGRAPHY

Surprise, joy and innocence jostle with vulnerability and nightmarish despair in the young faces that peer out of the pictures. The exhibition of photographs now on view at Halifax’s Dalhousie Art Gallery, and scheduled to tour eight other Canadian cities, is a tribute to the essence, and the mystery, of childhood. The pictures represent disparate cultures and several flash points in the world’s recent history. They are shot mostly in black and white, but executed in an array of artistic styles. Yet for all its diversity, the show titled Children in Photography—150 Years displays a remarkable unity. Jane Corkin, the Toronto gallery owner who selected the photographs, writes in a preface to the show’s handsome catalogue, “These photographs provoke, they demand response and, like children, require it more of the heart than the mind.” Corkin has nourished the idea of the exhibition for almost 10 years. During travels abroad

to sell photography from her own Jane Corkin Gallery, she says, she was intrigued by the fact that such a wide variety of photographers had made children their subjects. Corkin assembled works that range from such internationally renowned

artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and war photographer Robert Capa to such contemporary photographers as American photojoumalist Mary Ellen Mark and Canada’s Louise Abbott and Greg Staats. In doing so, Corkin discovered a remarkable link between children and the artists who photographed them. “Both have a way of cutting through to the essentials, of stripping things down,” she says. “It be-

came clear we could make a historical show around that relationship.”

With a contribution in ex¿ cess of $200,000 from the Hongkong Bank of Canaite* and the Winnipeg Art Gallery organizing the shovf Corkin’s idea became reality on June 27, when tt?!P display opened at the Dalhousie gallery. From the, outset, the exhibition—152 photographs by 104 photo^ raphers—has been marke by controversy. But few who have seen it have been l#h unmoved. Kathleen Flanagan, a photography instrue^ tor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, says that she has urged her st% dents to see it. “It is a really important, historically wid£-

ranging show,” she said, In a sense, the show is ar> index of shifting tastes and attitudes across more than a

century. It begins with such elegiac visions of children in Victorian England as Juü¿ Margaret Cameron’s idealized 1869 portrait of mother and daughter titled The Kiss of Peace. From there—using

the conventions of portraits, social documentary and street-scene photography—the shofa encompasses scenes of war and its aftermath, poverty in the Americas, Eastern Bloc conformity and the gritty cityscapes of contemporary urban life. “This is not just a sentimental show built around children,” says Shirley Madill. curator of contemporary art and photography at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, who worked wtei’ curator Corkin to prepare the show. Added Madill: “One of its strengths is its ability tér cover a number of social, historical and political issues.”

But the show does capture many happy

moments. For every neglected or wounded child, thei?e are others depicting that state of grace peculiar tcH childhood. Children are shown at play or bonded happ pily to their parents. There are good-humored and trusting children, many caught in the act of laughing. Toronto critic Gary Michael Dault, au-, thor of the pungent and thoughtful text in the 312*

page catalogue, writes a particularly apt note to accompany Luxembourg Garden, one of eight pictures by the great Hungarian-American photographer André Kertész. “When children laugh,” writes Dault, “especially when they laugh immoderately, something breaks open in the universe.”

Still, the exhibition includes a counterpoint of sobering photographs: children in bomb

¡helters, children in hospital, children resoundQgly alone, children old before their time. Vmong the most affecting of those is Mary liten Mark’s 1987 photograph of a family iving in a car, called Homeless Damn Family 'life. Two enervated parents and their equally uorose children are squeezed into the family :ar, as if permanently. Says Corkin: “If the

how does anything, it heightens our wareness of how children live.”

^.In fact, some viewers have comilained that, in places, the exhibition ¡too explicit. At least two visitors to he show in Halifax in July left behind Mistering messages in the visitors’

>ook about a 1983 print by Ameriih fashion photographer Francesco icavullo. A study in precocity, the lortrait depicts a small girl in a widened, bare-shouldered pose that is trongly reminiscent of a fashion »odei. One Toronto visitor called it ‘appalling,” while a Halifax gallery¡cter wrote, “I just wept: the child is lortrayed as a sexual object.”

Dault says that he wanted to adIrgss that particular aspect of the /ork and of other controversial phoographs. The text he originally subnitted for the catalogue, published Toronto’s Firefly Books and now sale across the country, contained he comment “This is a case of the ommodification of the girl’s exrême youth and the selling of it as a pedes of desire.” Dault’s comments on the Scavullo picture and ye others were either replaced or ltered by the book’s publishers.

)ault, himself a 50-year-old father four, said that he had been “agfbssively censored” and in an interiew added that “I wasn’t pleased bout this at all. I considered it a reach of trust.”

Corkin refused to comment to Maclean ’s on Dault’s allegations of

editorial interference, although earlier she had told a Toronto newspaper that Dault had “crossed the line from mere description to personal polemic.” For his part, Dault says that “nobody asked me to write descriptions; this was a text.” Susan Foshay, exhibitions curator of Halifax’s Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, agrees that the Scavullo portrait is “quite provoca-

tive,” but added, “that, too, can be a statement of the times.” And despite his problems with publishers, Dault says that, overall, the show is “beautiful and spectacular.”

Amid the show’s classics from such international masters as Cecil Beaton and Margaret Bourke-White, 44 of the exhibition’s 152 photographs were shot by Canadians. They include

The exhibition leaves Halifax in September for the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal, and will later travel to St. John’s, Nfld., Winnipeg, Toronto, Hamilton, Vancouver and Calgary, before closing in the Edmonton Art Gallery in May, 1992. Exhibition organizers say that some large galleries are loath to give space to a photographic exhibit. Said the Winnipeg gallery’s Madill, the issue of whether photography is an art “is still floating” in the minds of some cultural executives—“some museums still shy away from it.” But many of the striking images presented in the show provide a telling essay not only about childhood and society, but also about the artistry of fine photography.

a 19th-century studio portrait by William Notman—the best known of early Canadian photographers—to a flowering of recent photographs that include Tom Skudra’s haunting Three Banman Children, an austere but hopeful portrait of three Mexican Mennonite children who are in Canada with their parents to harvest vegetables. Also noteworthy are two photographs of native Canadians by 27-year-old Greg Staats, a resident of the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont., whose declared aim is to break stereotypes held by non-natives about natives.

GLEN ALLEN