Photographs of Children

From the moment portrait photography become technically feasible in the 1840s, children have figured among the most popular and compelling of camera subjects. U.S. households spent $9.1 billion on photography in 1999, and in 1995, 40 percent had a professional portrait photo taken. Yet by the turn of the twenty-first century, photographs of children had also become caught up in issues of child SEXUALITY and child sexual abuse. In Europe and the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, photography played a crucial role in reflecting, producing, and disseminating a Romantic ideal of children as innocent, vulnerable, emotionally priceless beings in need of special nurturance and protection from adult forms of work and social interchange. The contentiousness that surrounds photographic representations of children in the twenty-first century is symptomatic of the breakdown of this long-held Romantic ideal and the emergence of a post-Romantic child whose qualities and status re-main radically in doubt.


Popular commercial culture embraced portrait photography as a powerful new instrument in the formation and extension of the bourgeois liberal subject, that sovereign individual born of ENLIGHTENMENT values who is possessed of a psychologically complex sense of self and is entitled to certain inalienable human rights. For the first time in human history, a popular, affordable, and accessible medium of heretofore unimaginable verisimilitude recorded the visual presence of children neither rich nor famous enough to command the painter's attention. The children depicted in the early daguerreotypes (1839–1850s) make their appearance predominantly as members of a nuclear, middle-class family. Often they pose with one or both parents, but frequently they appear singly or in sibling groups, their likenesses preserved in one-of-a-kind images placed in ornate, hand-held cases. These early photographs often possess a solemn aspect due to the long exposure times required and to the social formality of the occasion. The making of postmortem photographs of deceased infants and children was a common ritual aspect of mourning and loss throughout the nineteenth century.

While child and family portraiture remained a mainstay of commercial photography, the advent of George Eastman's Kodak Company in the 1880s transformed the popular culture of photographic imagery. By adapting a number of advances in photographic technology (e.g., flexible roll film, more light-sensitive emulsions, simpler and smaller cameras, assembly-line photo processing) and by implementing an ambitious marketing strategy, the Kodak company convinced a U.S. and European middle class to take up photography as an essential attribute of family life. The amateur snapshot became as familiar and ritualistic as the BIRTHDAYS, holidays, graduations, weddings, reunions, and VACATION travels it served to commemorate. No childhood now goes undocumented. While the aesthetic and/or commercial value of this plenitude of self-generated familial imagery may be negligible, it constitutes a vast, collective visual unconscious informing our deepest understandings of self in relation to family history and the social order.

Fine Art Photography

While the family snapshot has served conventionally to construct and affirm a narrative of family well-being, the history of photography includes a distinguished tradition of artist photographers from Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) and LEWIS CARROLL (1832–1898) to Gertrude Kasebier (1852–1934) and SALLY MANN (b. 1951) for whom children have served as powerful iconographic figures. In these images the empirical fact of the subject's historical presence in front of the camera becomes enmeshed with literary references and aesthetic programs inherited from painting and printmaking. So, for example, the young members of Cameron's extended upper-class Victorian household embodied ideals of angelic transcendence from Renaissance painting while Carroll's images of his prepubescent friends represented his personal efforts to forge relationships based on play and fantasy that evaded conventional strictures segregating children from adults.

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the first decades of the twentieth, child nudity as portrayed in art photographs signaled a complex amalgam of associations composed of prelapsarian sexual innocence, family sentiment, nostalgia, and spiritual rejuvenation. This limited and socially acceptable range of meanings was secured by a finearts tradition inherited from the Renaissance in which nude forms, both male and female, constituted the outward, physical

Self-Portait with Hydroglider (1904), Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Lartigue's pride in a particularly favored toy is evident in this turn of the twentieth century photograph. The ease of using cameras has allowed children to be photographers as well as the subjects of photographs, giving viewers an image of childhood from the child's point of view. Photograph J. H. Lartigue. © .

embodiment of abstract, philosophical, and aesthetic ideals. By the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the production and circulation of images of naked children by artist-photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989), Jock Sturges (b. 1947), and Sally Mann had become the focus of public controversy, state and federal legislation, and legal prosecution. In these post-Freudian proceedings, allegations of CHILD PORNOGRAPHY and child sexual abuse are countered by free-speech arguments often accompanied by sophisticated postmodern theories of representation that insist upon the fictive, unstable, and ideological nature of photographic realism.

Social Documentary

Beginning with the novels of Charles Dickens and Lord Shaftesbury's speeches in the 1830s and 1840s, the child has figured prominently in the rhetoric and politics of social reform as unconscionable victim of social injustice and symbolic hope of a better future. In the 1870s, Dr. Thomas John Barnardo (1845–1905) commissioned a series of "before and after" albumen prints to illustrate the success of his CHILD-SAVING evangelical missionary activities in London. Photographs have been deployed ever since to solicit political and financial support from a reform-minded public. In the United States, Jacob Riis (1849–1914), a journalist and early advocate of slum clearance, used camera images of the New York tenement districts in order to illustrate and dramatize for a middle-class audience the systemic social problems arising from industrial capitalism's exploitation of immigrant wage labor. While children figure poignantly as innocent victims of slum conditions in many of these images, it is only with the five thousand photographs taken by LEWIS HINE (1874–1940) for the NATIONAL CHILD LABOROMMITTEE between 1907 and 1918 that the image of the working-class child takes center stage as the object of Progressive reform.

Documentary photography as a consciously articulated, professional genre, came into being in the 1930s in response to the social and economic upheavals of the GREAT DEPRESSION. Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Walker Evans

Dutch-born artist Inez van Lamsweerde has used computer manipulation of digital photographs–giving her girl models the tight grins of adult males–to represent the blurring of the lines between childhood and adulthood (Final Fantasy, Ursula [1993]). © .

(1903–1975) are only the best known of a talented group of photographers who worked under the auspices of the New Deal to record the plight of rural America in order to justify the federal programs aimed at providing assistance. A subsequent generation of photojournalists, spawned by a burgeoning picture press, included W. Eugene Smith (1918–1978), Roy DeCarava (b. 1919), and HELEN LEVITT (b. 1913). Almost invariably, they depicted children as immensely appealing beings whose unguarded happiness or unwarranted sufferings stood in dramatic contrast to the harsh and knowing circumstances of adult life. This liberal-humanist viewpoint became a foil for a subsequent generation of photographers, including Robert Frank (b. 1924), Diane Arbus (1923–1971), Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925–1972), and Emmet Gowin (b. 1941), who tended to portray children as more directly implicated in the more awkward, confusing, conflicted, unsavory, materialistic, erotic, or emotionally disturbing aspects of American social life. It remained for such photographers as Mary Ellen Mark (b. 1941), Larry Clark (b. 1943), Chris Killip (b. 1946), Sebastiaƒo Salgado (b. 1944), Nan Goldin (b. 1953), and Lauren Greenfield (b. 1966) to create difficult bodies of work portraying runaway, refugee, alienated, precocious, and delinquent youths as symptomatic of a social landscape in which the Romantic child figures only negatively as a lost possibility or grand illusion.

Beginning in the 1970s, photography came to be understood by an increasing number of artists as a medium that could be manipulated, re-contextualized, and thereby turned back against itself in order to highlight the complexity and instability of representation. Photographs of children that play with and against realist conventions have proven particularly useful to such postmodern artists as Jeff Wall (b.1946), Christian Boltanski (b. 1944), Nancy Burson (b.1948), and Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) in disrupting prevailing assumptions concerning photographic transparency and documentary truth.

Related Topics

Commericial photography. Photographs of children have figured ubiquitously as catalysts for consumer desire since the coming of age of advertising and photo-reproduction technologies in the 1920s. In keeping with advertising photography's unrivaled capacity to imbue constructions of fantasy with the immediacy of "the real," icons of romantic innocence, familial bliss, and physical perfection saturate popular culture as the promise of happiness attendant upon the consumption of goods and services–everything from automobile tires to health insurance. No matter how sophisticated and critical viewers, including very young ones, have become about the discrepancies between magazine fictions and lived experience, these images greatly influence common understandings and expectations as to who children are and how they fit into the adult world. Likewise, advertising imagery, in its ongoing search for new and more effective ways to solicit the viewer's attention, continues to make use of long-standing collective confusion, ambivalence, and repression regarding the erotic appeal of the child body.

Fetal imagery. Photographs of the human fetus (in conjunction with sonograms and related medical imaging technology) have had a powerful influence on conceptions of childhood by conferring personhood upon ever more immature stages of embryonic development. Lennart Nilsson's (b.1922) color photographs, first published in Life magazine (April 30, 1965), vividly portrayed the fetus as a cosmic "star child" floating free from the mother's body, thereby providing a powerful ideological construct for the anti-abortion movement in which virtually all prenatal existence is redefined and reimagined as "the life of the unborn child."

Child as photographer. Children, by definition, lack the power to define themselves and their world. Yet photography, given its mechanical ease and its independence from language, holds out the promise of transparency and immediacy in communicating a child's vision or point of view. In the history of photography, the work of Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894–1986) has long been celebrated as an aristocratic boy's-eye-view of the French belle epoque. In the United States, WENDY EWALD (b. 1951) has worked with Southern rural working-class young people, encouraging them to use photography as a tool of personal expression and cultural empowerment.

Family history. Photography's ability to arrest and preserve the temporal moment even as it signals its irremediable passage has always operated with a particular, sentimental force with regard to the portrayal of childhood, understood as a transitory, future-oriented state of innocence and dependence that must give way to worldly knowledge and adult responsibilities. Photographs of childhood offer a formidable epistemological challenge and can often serve as catalysts for the exploration of the intersections between individual life stories and more collective and distanced forms of social history.

Alice Liddell as the Beggar Maid (c. 1859), Lewis Carroll. Girlhood was a source of inspiration for Lewis Carroll, as it was for a number of Victorian artists. Whether or not Carroll was aware of the sexual overtones in his portraits of his young friends—immediately apparent to twenty-first-century viewers–has been a subject of intense debate among scholars. © .

See also: .


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Hirsch, Marianne, ed. 1999. The Familial Gaze. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

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