Online Exhibitions

The idea of childhood in Europe and America is almost as new as photography. Childhood as a concept developed in the 17th and 18th centuries through John Locke's philosophy of the tabula rasa. This theory that the human mind is a "blank slate" at birth encouraged parents to fill the blank slate in childhood with correct notions. Locke recommended "easy pleasant books" to help children engage and develop their minds. In the Romantic era, this concept of childhood centered around children as an allegory for innocence. Before these movements, children were considered incomplete adults. Besides infant Jesus and chubby cherubs, children were seldom depicted in art. Even in the case of infant Jesus, his physique often resembles an "incomplete adult" rather than a child. In the Romantic era, John Everett Millais was critiqued for his realistic approach in portraying a pre-adolescent Christ with dirty fingernails in his painting Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50). The Impressionist movement saw a rise in childhood paintings, most notably by Mary Cassatt. Parallel to Cassatt, photography as an emerging discipline embraced the new concept of childhood when it was largely absent in paintings. 



Baby sitting on a table
Baby Girl Seated on a Table, Striped Background (1945)
gelatin silver contact print
Mike Disfarmer
                         Women on Farm Holding Baby in the Air 
                               Happy Motherhood (Stavropol Territory) (1935)
                         gelatin silver print (ferrotyped)
                         Mark Markov-Grinberg


When comparing Mike Disfarmer's photograph of a toddler to Mark Markov-Grinberg's photograph, the desire to still treat children as "incomplete adults" still partially permeated into the twentieth century. Mike Disfarmer photographed this baby girl in 1945, perhaps as part of his series of photographs of soldier's families. The staging of this photograph echoes daguerreotypes of the past with the still pose and barren surroundings. Markov-Grinberg's photograph shows the environment of children. The women in the photograph surround the baby, embodying the "it takes a village to raise a child" attitude. The mother carries the baby over her head to engage the child's sense of wonder from a new perspective. We also get a glimpse of how mothers in the Stavropol Territory of Russia have to be depicted as working mothers.


A girl covering her mouth in front of women reading
Adult Education Class for Women Who Cannot Read (1962)
gelatin silver print
Ken Heyman
Mother with children in a car
Oklahoma Migrants (1936)
gelatin silver print
Arthur Rothstein


The concept of a "stay at home" mother focuses on suburban living situations. However, many mothers did not have the luxury of staying at home. Ken Heyman's photograph (left) shows women taking their children to their adult literacy classes. Arthur Rothstein (right) shows a mother who is an Oklahoma migrant who did not have a permanent home. These children traveled with her to find new work for the family on farms. 


To small children in rags, one holding a pan
Two Small Children Dressed in Rags, One Holding a Pan (1948)
gelatin silver print
Leon Levinstein
Woman Bathing Seven Children
           Mother Bathing Seven Children (ca. 1960)
                   gelatin silver print
                      Jacques Lowe
Poverty is another factor that largely separates different roles of mothers. Poverty in different parts of the world has different levels and different effects on children. In America, having many children is often seen as a sign of poverty. In other parts of the world, poverty entails having children on the streets rather in a classroom. Geographical location in relation to socio-economic status plays a large role in the formation of childhood.
Man photographing girls on first holy communion
Man Photographing Girls on First Holy Communion  
gelatin silver print
Leon Levinstein
               Children and Costumed Person in Front of Freedom Hotel Nigeria
    Children and Costumed Person
           in front of Freedom Hotel Nigeria 
       gelatin silver print
      Ken Heyman
The stages of childhood are marked in many ways, from physical growth, birthdays, to moving up to the next day in school. Ceremonies are another marker of growth in the child's life, such as a First Holy Communion. These ceremonies act as rights of passage into the next stages of growing up.
Two you girls pushing a miniature baby carriage
Sunday in Washington Square Park, New York (1946)
gelatin silver print
William Witt
Girl skipping next to wall with the written text Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite
Gonaives, February 9, 1986
('Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite')
gelatin silver print
Danny Lyon
Perhaps the most mystical notion of childhood is the theme of play. The concept of play is important for the development of social, emotional, physical, and intellectual health of children. It helps develop their sense of identity through developing confidence because it is one of the few moments in a child's life that they are given autonomy. William Witt's photograph (left) shows the team-building skills gained through playing with a friend. Danny Lyon's photograph shows how children during play are in complete mastery of their own world.
Children and a dog in front of a fire truck
Three Children and a Dog in Front of a Newark Fire
Department Fire Truck, Newark, New Jersey
gelatin silver print
Ken Heyman
Four boys sitting in front of a door and one boy on a bicycle
Beekman Street, Sunday Morning: Ginco, Tonto, Frankie, John Jr.
and Nelson, After Exploring the Buildings (1966-7)
gelatin silver print
Danny Lyon
Photographers in the 20th century sought to express inner truths through photographs. However, inner truths are hard to discover with children. Childhood is a mysterious realm as groups of children together develop their own hierarchies because of the autonomy they have during play. Adult photographers cannot be insiders to groups of children at play. Photographs of children outside of the direct control of their mothers and fathers give a sense of the surrealistic quality of another way of being. 

--Katie O’Hara, University Art Collection Curatorial Intern and Graduate Student in Art and Museum Studies (Fall 2018)