In the early 1900s, Lewis Hine documented the evils of child labor, crisscrossing America to photograph the children who spent long hours selling newspapers, picking cranberries, and working in factories. During the same period, Pictorialist photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz – eager to gain recognition for photography as a fine art – created idyllic images of children swathed in a kind of poetic mist. Priceless Children, a small show organized by the Weatherspoon Art Museum that opened last week in the Grey Gallery at NYU, juxtaposes the documentary work of Hine with the artful images of the Pictorialists. The contrast could not be simpler, but it has a stark power that upends clichés and reverberates in different ways through our own child-obsessed time.
For both Hine and the Pictorialists, children have a symbolic radiance: They represent the realm of hope and possibility. In the eyes of the Pictorialists, children were used to describe a better place, a garden removed from corruption. Their pictures present children in a softly focused, otherworldly light. Gertrude Käsebier, in particular, arranged timeless images of mother and child. (F. Holland Day also presented idealized images of children, but today’s viewers may see the serpent of pedophilia in his garden.) Hine’s great and gritty work also summoned a dream – but one of possibility lost. His photographs are moving not because they show a generalization called “child labor” but because each child is a strong individual: The children suffer one at a time. Many look bright and high-spirited, which makes their bleak prospects even more disturbing.
There’s no need to choose between these contrasting approaches to art and childhood. Paradise and paradise lost both have an important place in the imagination, and art can convey the immediate as well as the eternal. And yet Hine steals this show from the Pictorialists the way a plucky orphan cops the apple from a carefully arranged fruit cart. Often in art, the rough hand of the real – however impolite – appears more vigorous than hothouse artifice or utopian dreams. And Hine had an important secret: He was just as interested in composition as the Pictorialists were. But he was subtler about it. He did not show off in front of the children.
At the Grey Gallery at NYU; through 7/13.