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May 6, 2018

INTO THE DARK ROOM WITH AN EXPLORATION OF CHILDHOOD

By itchysilk In PHOTOGRAPHY

It was Aristotle who said-“ Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man”. It was a statment that evidently alluded to the importance of childhood in the creation of the adult. In this Into The Darkroom it is the subject of childhood and the images by three photographers of childhood that our writer Alessia Scacchi ventures into.

Childhood

Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015) famously collaborated with the writer Cheryl McCall for the Life magazine article, Streets Of The Lost (1983) *. It was a profound yet harrowing expose of life in . Far from the positive images of Seattle (undoubtedly created by over zealous tourism minded individuals), the Windy City’s underbelly was exposed in all its visceral and graphic details. The graphic details intimately captured by Mary Ellen Mark and detailed in words by McCall reveal a city where young street children in Seattle are forced to fend for themselves. In with all its spin of the American Dream, here were children living the American Nightmare.

This work is arguably Mary Ellen Mark’s most famous and defining photographic exploration. It was the culmination of a moral standpoint she took after her studies in photojournalism where she decided to dedicate her life to documenting the stories of social outcasts. In Streets Of The Lost we experience the lives of individuals like Erin Blackwell, aka Tiny, the young 13-year old prostitute. It was in fact Erin’s story which captured Mary Ellen Mark. Erin’s story in turn become the advert (so to speak) for all the harrowing stories of these Seattle street children. In a telling testament to Erin’s story, Mary Ellen Mark followed the life of Erin right up until her own in 2015 .

“What you look for in a picture is a metaphor, something that means something more, that makes you think about things you’ve seen or thought about” she said.

In her images “something more” is the reality of living without a childhood. Mary Ellen used to think of her subjects as adults, as individuals, as people, regardless of their age. Her point of view however changed. Tiny was a teenager/lady wearing all the paraphernalia of a ‘woman’ wearing dresses and smoking but we also see her hugging a rag horse. It’s an emphasizes on the dichotomy between the adult and the teen.

Through the article it is clear Tiny yearns for a ‘normal childhood’ or at the minimum an existence that does not involve -she dreams for a life where she is not burdened by her dire economic situation. Mary Ellen Mark was fascinated by children’s ability to hope and go on in every situation. Their ability to dream. Ultimately it is the ability to dream that is the remnant of their shattered childhood. In this sense Mary Ellen Mark follows the poetic of the boyish.

In 1897 the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli wrote Il Fanciullino (The Young Boy). With this text there is the declaration of the poet’s poetic. He thinks that the power of poetry is to arrive to the truth in an irrational way. The power is in the suggestion, the metaphor, the abstract where to find something through similarities. The poetry is the place where we discover, it is not the invention. The secret is in this open view. As the reality is something over our possibility, as the poetic can be close to describe the undefinable secret of life. His poetry is based on and it underlines the power of childhood vision.

Mary Ellen Mark seems to follow this tendency, giving to her subjects their deserved abstraction in her photographic poem-a redemption. And it’s also the evidence of confidence in humans. Poetry (as is the case with photography) is the comfort zone against the world.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009), the famous American nanny, photographed the children from families she worked for. Her childhood was strongly influenced by the trauma of an alcoholic father, a cold mother and a schizophrenic brother. Her photographic work was her personal and precious comfort zone. Taking an image is an attempt to capture a part of reality-it is a possessive action. In her images she evidently attempts to appropriate a life she didn’t have. In her images there is a curios and observant eye. She wants to understand and celebrate the secret behind those lives.

Childhood

In her work there is the research and a distance in her point of view. The shot is mostly at the same eye level as the subject. Her eye is dis-enchanted as Mary Ellen Mark’s. ’s photos are taken on the streets, in the relation to the space of city. The children are represented in their condition of being children. The city, outside, is the space where she can identify with others. Outside she is not just a nanny, but she can be something else, a person out of her role. The working place, the house, is a microcosm where she is the adult. Outside, the world is so big and there is so much to discover. Going out is the democratic action to connect with the world at the same level. The photography is the medium by which this relation happens.

Photography is more than a process of pointing a camera. It can and is a conduit to personal catharsis or indeed a wider collective catharsis.

 

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), better known as Lewis Carroll approaches the outside world differently. His world is the fairy tale, the fantastic and magical scenes. Not just as writer but also as photographer. This fantastical artificial world reflected in his photography where ornate scenography is employed. I don’t want to talk about the accusations of pedophilia: this is a controversial case. The taste in the Victorian era should be considered however at the time, Child was normalized and was a symbol of innocence. Of course, there was a sympathy with the child world, even if the subjects are an expedient to express himself, his creativity and his imagination. Comparing with the other two authors, there is a stronger narrative attempt. In his poetic there is the desire to make the adult’s life inconsistencies evident.

The fascinating boyish dream offers an opportunity of recognition on different levels. In Mary Ellen Mark’s there is the recognition of the dreaming force. Foe Vivian Maier it is the recognition of a never had childhood. In Lewis Carroll it is the recognition of the imagination and fiction as salvation in adult life. Significantly despite their connections to children ironically, they all lacked any children of their own.

Photography is more than a process of pointing a camera. It can and is a conduit to personal catharsis or indeed a wider collective catharsis.

*Thanks to the collaboration with her husband the director Martin Bell (1943) two stunning and intimate films were realized-Streetwise (1983) and the follow-up Tiny: The Life Of Erin Blackwell (2016). It was a testament to Tiny’s story that a whole documentary was produced.