This photography exhibit, comprised of twelve images, was not quite what I expected. I expected photos that challenged child labor practices and advocated for stricter laws to protect children’s rights. Instead, I saw images of children in nature, playing, or going to school. Since I did not have the opportunity to speak to the curator(s), I do not know why these images were chosen to be on display.
I also realize these images are not incredibly accessible to viewers who have not studied theories of childhood. So I have picked two of these images to examine more closely and comment on how they conform to or challenge conventional ideas of childhood often represented in literature and movies.
All twelve images can be viewed here: https://exchange.umma.umich.edu/resources/26548/view
This image evokes themes of the trickster. The boy in the image stands precariously beside a crumbling building. He doesn’t look lost or scared, which is at odds with how children are expected to be in safe, nurturing environments at all times. If they are not, they are expected to afraid or confused, or at least supervised. But the boy is alone. He appears to be wearing a jester costume which alludes to a sense of playfulness and elusiveness. He stands confidently, and he has an unimpressed, ominous expression.
His characterization reminds a lot of Peter Pan (from Disney’s 1953 adaptation), who is known as a mischievous, defiant character who defies conventional expectations of childhood and obedience towards adult figures.
I think it is important to note that the boy is a teen or close to being a teen. In the original literary works of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Peter is described as a seven day old infant. But Disney “aged up” the characters in the animated movie. Historically, authors and artists have been hesitant to depict younger children in positions of defiance.
Given this context, I think it is important to think about how and why it is more culturally appropriate for older children to defy norms of children and childhood. I believe this is related to how parent-child dichotomies are similar to that of supervisor-subordinate dichotomies.
This second photo echoes some of the themes mentioned in the previous two pictures. I find this image to be particularly compelling because of its ghastly mood evoked not only by the fact that it is taken in a graveyard, but because children are often thought of as the antithesis of death. Additionally, children are generally expected to be sheltered from scary situations or environments.
Yet, a tombstone towers over the young girl. Her eyes are closed. She’s surrounded by tall grass; it is almost as if her environment could swallow her. The black and white color scheme adds to the ominous mood of the photograph.
I can not think of a perfect comparison that I have seen in children’s literature or Disney movies to this image, but I am reminded of the scene where Alice is lost in the terrifying forest of Wonderland and surrounded by creepy creatures (in Disney’s 1951 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland). Remember what I said about Disney “aging up” Peter Pan? You guessed it. They did that with Alice too; Alice is actually seven years old in the original text.
This photograph confronts our society’s resistant to depicting young children in distressing or unconventional environments. The girl is alone in the graveyard, moving away from what could be her parents’ house—i.e. shelter and safety. She has a hand on the tombstone, a representation of death. But she doesn’t look scared. She’s caught mid-step, not quite posing for the camera, which suggests a level of authenticity and a more realistic depiction of children and their relationship with death.
Knowing that the exhibit was created for English 313: Fantasies of Childhood, I recognize that there may have been limitations on space and time in terms of exhibition preparation and installation. But since it was an exhibit and not a class workshop, I wish the curator(s) provided more information to promote audience engagement. For example, the curator(s)’s reasons for choosing these images and context for understanding these works of art.
Overall, I really appreciate UMMA’s partnership with professors to enrich students’ understanding of art. I liked how some of the photographs evoked images and themes that I have observed in popular culture. The more I analyzed the photographs, the more appreciation I had for the exhibit. The exhibit made me consider important questions about the construct of childhood and the accessibility of art. I believe, to truly appreciate art, we must know the historical and cultural context in which it is created.
What do you think about this exhibit?