I went to a dance recital over the weekend for a five year old friend. There were kids of all ages in the show, but the 2-3 year olds were really something to see. Not only were they just ridiculously cute in their fancy dresses, but also their performance was great – mostly they just stood on stage, a few doing moves and some getting frozen with their arms in position staring at the audience. It was so adorable that everyone was laughing. Visually it was something I would have loved to take pictures of, all the little ballerinas in a group with one lost ballerina off to one side…. This got me wondering what it is that makes children doing this sort of thing so interesting and funny. I mean if it were adults the audience wouldn’t have been laughing, ya know?
It first struck me that maybe in looking at very young people doing things that are new to them but are familiar and not new to adults; we get some sort of insight into humanness or something? I find my visual interest as a photographer is consistently in children doing things in the world, not adults. There is something in seeing children act in the world that engages my mind, stops me to think and wonder… When I attempt to photograph adults similarly, it doesn’t resonate in the same way, it doesn’t bring up questions or a wondering. What is the curiosity?
Judith Butler, a philosopher/theorist I read a lot in the 90’s, presented in her book “Gender Trouble”, the idea that identity (specifically gender) is something we are performing. It is the idea that gender is learned behavior that we enact and these performances are then what constitute “male” and “female” identities. Gender is what you do, not who you are (and there are many variations). This idea expands to identity in general. We are performing who we are, our actions don’t reflect some sort of “natural” identity that already exists but instead our actions create it.
Perhaps seeing kids so clearly learning to perform, not just a dance for a recital, but how to be “grown up” people, reminds us ever so slightly that we ourselves have learned to be who we are and to perform ourselves in the world… and its kinda funny.
I find this connection between my undergraduate studies in identity and how we become who we are/ BE who we are and my photography of children and childhood interesting. Perhaps I find clues to personhood in the way kids interact/act with the world around them that are harder to see once become adults.
I was talking to a student today as he was finished making a print in the darkroom. He was standing back and looking at the line of test strips he had just laid out in order on the board next to the final print. He said he liked seeing all the different time and color changes together and that he really enjoys “progressions”. What he means is things like sweeping, dusting, sanding something, or in this case all the steps leading to a color corrected final print. That mostly makes sense to me; I know that feeling of satisfaction as you see something gradually become clean. But I don’t have quite the pleasure in it that would lead me to want to keep all my test strips or make a video of sanding away a piece of wood (something he mentioned as a project idea). I am, however, interested in how our creative impulse relates to how our brains work or how we think, and how there are ways of thinking or doing or being that are just simply enjoyable. How funny to enjoy brain function.
What I have noticed about myself is that I am very spatially oriented. This in a lot of ways just means I like to organize things but it also has to do with objects in space. For example, when I was a little kid and would go grocery shopping with my mom, I would fit every item perfectly into a spot in the cart so that twice as many groceries would fit in the cart. (I have memories of overflowing shopping carts, I’m not sure if maybe we only went grocery shopping every few weeks or what). I also loved and still do love, playing with matchbox cars and making structures just the right size for them to park in, or backing up the miniature boat trailer into the gutter full of water. I notice when I’m hanging out playing with kids nowadays and toy cars are involved I start parking them in a little imaginary parking lot. At times, there may be a bit of not being able to help myself to this, like when I find myself cleaning up friends houses or moving a shampoo bottle back where I wanted it after a housemate moved it. But it usually is useful; my house stays pretty clean and organized and I’m useful to my unorganized friends
Ultimately what I find interesting about all of this is that it seems to be visual. The motivation seems to be to satisfy my eyes; to put things in the world in a way that is pleasing to my eyes. This has got me thinking about how it might then relate to the photographs I make. The most obvious correlation is that making a photograph is about organizing the world in the frame of the camera – what you include or exclude and how it all fits together. In a way, it is a sort of documentation of this mental impulse about things in space and in their place that I have. I don’t know, maybe that is the only connection – that I am composing the world with or without the camera and that I can use the camera to explore my enjoyment of spaces. There may be more to it but for now that is as far as I have gotten with me and my brain. I am curious if other photographers or artist’s see this sort of thing in their work or their creative process.
There are a few things I have found to be important for making my pictures with children. First of all there is an age range that really is ideal. This seems to be a little before 2 till just beyond 3. I think it’s at the point where the child really starts to move around and interact independently with their surroundings that things start to happen for me visually.
Another important factor is that the child at some point doesn’t pay attention to what I’m doing while taking pictures. We are hanging out together and interacting but the presence of my camera doesn’t interfere. She continues to play and be engaged or she is doing her own thing and me taking pictures goes completely unnoticed … while another child may just stop, get quiet and watch me.
I have also found I am most interested when kids are in a space that isn’t visually defined as a child’s space but there is still a clear sense that it is in fact their space. So like, not too many bright colorful plastic toys, or not a playground, but a regular space at home or outside that has been created and defined by the child’s presence there or their interaction there. It is interesting too because I think there is a space created and defined by the child being there in that place, and experiencing there in that place, but there is also this larger container space that is created by parents/caregivers that allows the child’s defined space to exist in this way that interests me…
This kid space seems to be created by them exploring or following their curiosity with focus, not concerned with the “bigger picture” of life that an adult would be… a sort of exploring without constraints or worries or a to do list… I think they can do this because the adult world of their parents/caretakers has created this “safe” space/place for them to be in. And, it is interesting because it’s seemingly invisible to them, but if it were gone they would be immediately aware of it. This space is created by their adult people’s attention on them and awareness of them and care for them and it allows the child to focus on the unknown, explore and expand into the world around them knowing they will be contained… it’s boundaries for them basically, invisible limits that are set for them.
I’ve been thinking lately about my photography, my life, my interests and what ties it all together…what leads to me making the pictures that I do? … and is this really interesting to anyone?
I started babysitting when I was 9 (curiously and coincidentally the same age I first remember making photographs with intent). My first real nanny position was when I just turned 18, I moved in with my best friend’s sister to help out with her new born daughter. She gave me a stack of book to read and that was it, I was totally engaged. I was reading about parenting techniques, theories and ideas but I immediately saw how it all related to people of any age and found all my time spent with kids to be an ongoing opportunity to learn about people, how we become who we are, how are brains work and how we make sense of ourselves and the world. I continued to watch kids for years and still do on and off.
My fascination with people and how we become who we are continued, and when I was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona I got interested in the Women’s Studies program. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about how we identify ourselves and the people around us, specifically in terms of gender – this being one of the first, if not the first thing decided about who we are. I was also working as a nanny for a number of families over those years. I wasn’t making many photographs at the time, a few of the kids I knew but nothing that explored the ideas I was thinking about directly.
A few years after I completed my degree, I spent a summer in Maine at the Photographic Workshops. It was a pretty dramatic change, going from the desert in Tucson to the strange landscape of Maine. The area looked to me like the pictures you find on jigsaw puzzles of quiet green landscapes, a world I had never seen before.
For six weeks of the summer I lived with a group of fellow work-study students, sharing a tiny room in a house full of people. We were around each other 24 hours a day, which was a huge change for me who was used to living and working alone. Every day we looked at pictures, talked about pictures and made pictures. It was great. It was also a lot to get used to. As the weeks went on, I found myself making pictures in an attempt to ground myself. Often the pictures were of myself; other times they were quiet spaces I had found. It was like the click of the shutter could root me to the ground or something. I think this is a thread that runs through the photographs I made that summer – grounding and taking a look at myself, literally.
A year later, when I arrived in Chicago for graduate school I had no idea what I was going to photograph. I started out occasionally taking pictures of myself and I was finding myself drawn to any open space I came across in the city, empty lots, abandoned parking lots, etc. I’m sure this was a result of finding myself in a much more crowded and noisy city than I was used to and perhaps another attempt at using the camera to ground myself. The pictures I made were all right but not yet engaging my curiosity or interest.
Around this same time, I was driving to Minneapolis every other month to visit my niece, Stella. She was about 2 years old at this point and I had been photographing her since I met her at 2 months old. So far the pictures had mostly been to share with family with a few odd ones here and there that piqued my interest. But by that spring, with my brand new Hasselblad I began to find my pictures. Sitting on the floor playing and hanging out with Stella, a familiar and fun activity, I began photographing her and the space of our hanging out.
I think the first series of images that came out of this are a combination of just being present in the moment and of engaging with a sense of space/place of childhood. Sitting on the floor and playing, talking, and taking in the world in a very basic way was something I had been doing for years. Taking these pictures had the same feeling of grounding myself or finding a quiet empty space as the other pictures I had been making up to this point had, only now they included this other part of my life, the activity and time spent with kids.
As the project continued on, I was being “encouraged” to shoot in color. For me, color had always seemed like “too much information” and I hadn’t really found a working visual relationship to it yet. In black and white the world becomes shapes and tones to compose, something that made sense to my brain. Beginning to use color film, I found myself moving in closer and exaggerating the depth of focus (a result of extension tubes not so much the aperture). In this way I was able to make the world of color into abstract shapes and tones to compose. Being able to get in closer also allowed me to focus on the sense of tiny details that I experience when with very young kids – the ones who are crawling around noticing every dropped crumb on the floor and exploring things close up that are usually at our feet level. This is where the second series of images emerged:
And so now I am here, continuing to explore these spaces and experiences with the kids, making pictures, and attempting to articulate what it is I am doing. More thoughts next time….