The Child in Photography

In the century and a half since photography allowed humanity an historical moment of self-consciousness - a way to see ourselves as never before - photographers have been drawn to recording youth, especially children. A child standing before the photographers lens provided a dual perspective on humanity - at once eternally young and yet, clad in clothes to be soon outgrown, ephemeral. McFarlane looks to the work of Bill Henson, Tracey Moffatt, Ian Dodd, Sebastio Salgado, Deborah Paauwe, Anne Ferran, Sandy Edwards, Jon Rhodes and Roger Scott.

In the century and a half since photography allowed humanity an historical moment of self consciousness – a way to see ourselves as never before - photographers have been drawn to recording youth, especially children.

As photographers began to address nineteenth century life, children started appearing before the camera, often as visible genetic trophies. Their presence signalled, at the very least, continuity of the family line. And with the appalling rate of nineteenth century child mortality, a bleak, parallel practice emerged - photographing those tragic children whose lives had spanned days, not years.

The growing popularity of photography began the creation of what would become the first visual pre-histories to adulthood. Confronting optically accurate renderings of ourselves as children – previously only retrievable through memory – compelled us to see where we had come from for the first time.

A child standing before the photographer's lens provided a dual perspective on humanity – at once eternally young and yet, clad in clothes to be soon outgrown, ephemeral. These photographs sang fresh elegies to vanished youth and pulsed with the promise of adulthood.

Photography of children came to express the everyday miracle of any community – the growth of its newest citizens.

A century and a half later, photographers have discovered that the face of a child can be a powerful metaphor for expressing the confused and tragic state of much of the world.

When eminent Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado addressed a capacity audience at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1995, a sprinkling of criticism rose from the audience, questioning how he, as an artist, justified earning a living by documenting human suffering, especially that of children. Salgado's photographs of tragic situations were also so beautiful, some said, that they subverted this artist's stated concern for humanity.

Part of Salgado's response came when he projected a set of black and white images he had made of children the previous year in Bosnia. These children, said the photographer, consistently asked him to take their photograph. Salgado's reply was both compassionate and practical. He arranged a time for the children to be brought to him. Each child then stood for a moment before Salgado's battered Leica camera and had a single photograph taken. The children then moved away, apparently satisfied. The resulting photographs, when shown at the Art Gallery of NSW, were received by the audience in silence. The Brazilian photojournalist had, almost without exception, captured something of each child's bruised spirit. It was impossible not to be deeply moved by the war-corroded childhood reflected in the children's faces.

It was an eloquent demonstration of how poetically observed photography – whether labelled as documentary, photojournalism or reportage – could still be effective in a world saturated by images of tragedy. It is also worth remembering that the founder of Medecins Sans Frontiers was inspired to form his compassionate organisation after seeing Don McCullin's photograph of a starving, albino Biafran child.

But in Australia it appears we apply different traditions when addressing the relationship of the child to photography, as testified by Monash University's 2001 touring exhibition Telling tales. Images in this show, states catalogue essayist Anne Marsh, were designed to explore "memories of childhood experience as remembered by adults." The exhibition illuminates the difficulty of contemporary art practice in addressing a subject as simple and universal as children.

Despite a certain orthodox visual invention, such as Tracey Moffatt's well known Scarred For Life, a series of coolly arranged tableaux of children in unhappy families, and Deborah Paauwe's neatly posed studio images of adolescent life, there was little in this selection to communicate the vibrant, anarchic energy of childhood.

There was, however, provocative work present: Bill Henson's moody nude of a young woman suspended in almost opaque darkness and Anne Ferran's Carnal Knowledge series of children's faces superimposed over stone, were two strong examples. As I contemplated these works, a child entered the Campbelltown (NSW) Gallery and broke my concentration by skipping past and stopping in front of Tracey Moffatt's grim parables on dysfunctional families. After gazing intently at Moffatt's images for a couple of minutes, the girl ran outside and vanished into the Japanese garden behind the Gallery. Her carefree appearance provided an unexpected, blunt epiphany, reminding me that little in this restrained exhibition came close to expressing what she had unwittingly conveyed, in the short time it took her to enter and leave the exhibition.

This experience made me wonder why curators Katarina Paseta and Samantha Vawdrey had addressed a subject like "the child in contemporary photography" primarily through arranged, constructed and posed imagery, with its inevitable, resulting artifice.

My reluctant conclusion is that photography at its simple, artless best is undervalued by the Australian fine art photographic community, and even worse, misunderstood. Whatever documentary tradition there is in Australia appears to be a work in progress at best. Despite having produced a number of world class observers of the human condition in the past fifty years (David Potts, Lorrie Graham, David Moore, David Dare Parker and Michael Amendolia come readily to mind), their tradition of observation is generally excluded from fine art practice, overshadowed by more fashionable photo-based art practices.

The failure to respect the natural eloquence contained within classical, unmanipulated photography appears to be a blind spot in the art community, applicable to both artists and teachers. And despite having the illusionist grammar necessary to convey the intrinsic surrealism of everyday life, the camera doesn't really get a chance in exhibitions such as Telling tales.

Nevertheless, there were memorable moments in this exhibition. Nobody, for example, manufactures images of adolescence with the poignancy of Bill Henson. His sombre photo-tableaux of the young in emotional extremis literally weep with unresolved conflict.

Anne Ferran's consistent pursuit of the elusive nature of mortality takes a very different path to that of Henson. Apart from her Carnal Knowledge series, Ferran was represented in this exhibition with photograms made from nineteenth century children's garments. Her pictures were made by placing the clothes upon a light sensitive sheet of photographic paper in the darkroom. Light was then directed around and through the subject and onto the paper's light sensitive surface. The image is then developed conventionally.

In Telling tales, Ferran's photograms used garments once worn by children on Sydney's colonial Rouse Hill Estate. With their sensuous, velvet tonality, Ferran's black and white prints allowed distant, anonymous lives to echo, quite literally, though the fraying threads of nineteenth century Australian life.

"It was very important (for me) to start with a subject where there's a difficulty in communicating between now and then," asserts Ferran, "My work allows people to have a conduit to that kind of experience."

Ferran's commitment to exploring childhood has been a consistent part of her practice. Her memorable 1995 photographic installation Where Are You Now? at Sydney's Australian Centre for Photography merged found objects from her own childhood - tricycles, high chairs and prams - with projected colour images of textures from nature. Audiences found themselves confined within a dark, dreamlike space in which, inevitably, they contemplated their own childhood.

"The floor was scattered with& cloth penguin things I had made," recalled Ferran. "When I took them into the ACP, [curator] Blair French was& horrified. He immediately wanted them to be taken away. But when I put them on the [gallery floor], they were like the fallen expectations we all have& the hopes that we have that die&"

Where Are You Now? provoked strong responses from visitors to the ACP. Ferran remembers that "people would come to me and tell me& amazing things& painful, disturbing stories about how they, as a child, had to deal with a wounded animal&"

It is the lack of simple poetic engagement, especially using photography in its purest form, that diminishes an exhibition such as Telling tales. Classical narrative photography unquestionably could have provided the fluent visual grammar needed to capture much of the essence of youth, yet it was not used here.

The Australian art world's consistent undervaluing of classical photography's proven capacity to address such a task is mystifying. The simpler virtues of the medium still find a ready audience (and market) in both the United States and Europe. I remain puzzled that in Australia, photo-based artists continue to avert their gaze from the camera's most enduring (and challenging) capabilities.

Compare this with how well-known documentary photographers Sandy Edwards and Jon Rhodes recently recorded important changes in the lives of daughters of close friends and another, deeper view of the child in contemporary photography could have resulted.

Rhodes' 1999 image of Ruby Ruff Lander, daughter of painter Carol Ruff and film-maker Ned Lander, shows an adolescent girl standing by a bush stream in a state of near perfect, private grace. Ruff Lander's stance is at once archetypal – she is on the cusp of adulthood – yet carelessly childlike. The resonances could not run any deeper than they do in this remarkable photograph.

It also epitomises the deepest virtues of photography – the camera's simultaneous ability to express the actual (the image shows clearly a young girl standing on a rock in a country New South Wales creek), and the universal (Ruff Lander carries in her anonymous, back-turned stance, every virtue of remembered youth).

Sandy Edwards' intense documentation of Marina Ely, daughter of sculptor Bonita Ely and architect Marr Grounds, calibrated the young girl's transition from childhood to puberty with a commendable lack of sentimentality. Edward's images of Marina Ely were exhibited at STILLS Gallery, Sydney, and at the Palm House in Sydney's Botanical Gardens. They were also published in book form, with a text by Gillian Mears.

Looking for other examples of the camera addressing youth, I recalled Roger Scott's intense 1994 photo-essay on a Sydney girl's school - a tour de force of this artist's skill for intimate observation. Scott has the uncanny ability to work extremely close to his subjects without disturbing them.

One particular image showed several girls skylarking on a mufti (uniform-free) day. Scott instinctively understood that the success of this photograph depended on expressing the complex, interacting relationships of each person in the picture. Few photographers would have had the skill to accommodate such subtle visual behaviour, without allowing the image to become cluttered.

Ian Dodd is another photographer who skates on the thinnest of visual ice in his delicate observations of people. His image of a young boy diving into water captures youth surrendering to the moment.

It has become fashionable to dismiss the value of documentary photography, with the inference being drawn that modern communication needs slicker visuals and conceptual cleverness in order to deal with the 21st century. While I respect all of the art practices used in exhibitions such as Telling tales, I would argue that an intuitive, observant eye is more needed than ever. Photography's ability to divine the human condition, especially with children, remains undiminished, yet awaits significant patronage.