Few subjects have more appeal for photographers than children. Unlike adults, youngsters maintain their naturalness under the scrutinizing lens. But American Children, a modest show of some 60 prints from the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, clearly belongs to the artists: Their photographs reveal more about their art than about childhood experiences. Spanning more than a century, the images provide a brief survey of photographic styles while underscoring society’s changing perceptions of childhood.
The earliest prints are of Victorian innocents complacently sitting for the long exposures early photography required. Soon the Photo-Secessionists, influenced by the esthetics and symbolism of painting, offered romanticized images such as Gertrude Käsebier’s Madonna-and-child-like Adoration. In the same era, socially conscious documentarians like Jacob Riis were presenting the harsh truths about child immigrants. That realistic view extended into the 1930s with Farm Security Administration photographers recording the grim life of rural children during the Depression. After World War II faster film and the highly mobile miniature camera made candid shots feasible. Helen Levitt’s street photography from that period captures the spontaneity of children at play, and her pictures are among the few in this show that truly enter the spirited world of the young. In recent decades both the photographers (in their styles) and the subjects (in their poses) have emphasized individuality. For example, the sassy, sexual teenager in Mark Goodman’s picture entitled Standing Beside His Father’s Wrecker, July 4, 1974 is a quite distant relative of his Victorian cousins. The show remains in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art, through March 29. It will reopen at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, Fla. on June 10 and later will travel to Wichita and Little Rock.