At a glance: United States of America

'Full of Grace' photography exhibition celebrates children

© UNICEF/NYHQ1983-0001/Isaac
'Girls share textbooks to study', Pakistan, 1983

By Ellen Tolmie

“Photographic images of children are the most common, the most sacred and at times the most controversial images of our times … They can be both banal and profound; they can narrow perceptions by reinforcing clichés or broaden perspectives by kindling the imagination.” – Ray Merritt, curator of ‘Full of Grace’

WEST PALM BEACH, USA, 30 January 2012 – ‘Full of Grace’, a graceful, eclectic and evocative exhibition of more than 200 photographs, accompanied by sculptures and literary quotations, opened on 26 January at the Palm Beach Photographic Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. It is an exuberant celebration of the representation of children in photography over the past 150 years.

Curated by New York’s Ray Merritt, a photography collector, author and editor, and a distinguished lawyer, ‘Full of Grace’ revisits the themes Merritt explored in his book of the same name, published in 2007. The exhibition retains the book’s historical reach and includes many of the same images. But it also offers a more serendipitous presentation, drawing on major New York photography collectors and dealers including Merritt himself, Joe Baio, Henry Buhl, Joe Cohen, Peter McGill and Howard Greenberg.

“I have often been asked to describe that one radiant quality that draws us to photographs of children,” Merritt writes in his introduction to the show. “For this curator, it is best captured by the word ‘grace’.”

© Dorothea Lange, courtesy the Cohen Family Collection
'Migrant mother', USA, 1936

Photography’s luminaries

The depth and nuance of this concept of grace is on vivid display, starting with the stark black-and-white 1978 ‘Baby’s face’ image by Ralph Gibson that opens the show. It includes many rarely seen, usually small-scale, images of children made in photography’s earliest days by Victorian masters including Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron and John Thomson. These are complemented by contemporary works, often large scale and in blazing colour, by photographers including Thomas Struth and Joyce Tenneson.

Roughly half the photographs in the exhibition come from the United States, works by W. Eugene Smith, Sally Mann, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank and many other luminaries, spanning all the ages of childhood as well as children’s diverse circumstances, including both scarcity and affluence.

This exhibit also includes some of photography’s most important social documentarians, such as Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange. One of the most iconic of the images presented is Lange’s 1936 ‘Migrant Mother’, a portrait of a destitute woman with some of her children during the Great Depression. This is perhaps America’s most famous single photograph.

An elegiac rendering of the plight of the dispossessed during this time, the image was widely published and hugely popular, helping to mobilize public opinion behind a national response to alleviate the worst effects of rural poverty.

© Martin Munkácsi, courtesy Howard Greenberg
'Boys in Liberia', c.1930

Photographs from the rest of the world are equally arresting, particularly in tracing the history of photographic representation of children. Another iconic image is Martin Munkácsi’s 1930 photograph of Liberian boys, seen from behind, running into the sea to swim: an ode to the physical joys of childhood. This image is on the cover of the book ‘Full of Grace’.

Children in conflict

A representation of the terrible circumstances children face is a photograph by George Rodger. It shows another boy, about the same age as the Liberians, in Germany in 1945. He is walking past rows of corpses in Bergen-Belsen, the recently liberated Nazi extermination camp. The boy is looking away from the rows, seemingly pushing his face away from the horror he is witnessing. As an image, it is a graphically powerful depiction of the psychological assault on children caused by witnessing atrocities.

‘Full of Grace’ also includes several images from UNICEF’s photography collection. These include veteran UN photographer John Isaac’s 1983 photograph of Pakistani girls sharing their school books, and Michael Kamber’s 2005 photograph of a baby, Faisal, in Darfur, Sudan. Faisal was born after his mother was raped during a violent attack on the region’s civilians; such attacks continue today. 

‘Brutally honest’

“Children lack bias, they know no prejudice, they are brutally honest and incapable of hiding their emotions,” Merritt comments. “They exhibit pride without vanity and are inclusive to a fault. Challenged children and those in danger often exhibit other aspects of grace – the ability to adapt, to endure and to forgive.”

© George Rodger, courtesy the Carol and Ray Merritt Collection
'Bergen-Belsen', Germany, 1945

‘Full of Grace’ explores all these aspects of childhood, and many more. Both the exhibition and the book draw on Ray Merritt’s abiding interests in both children and photography. The impulse to marry these interests was, in part, the result of his association with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, where he served for several years on the Executive Committee of its governing board. It was also inspired by his many years as a photography trustee at major American museums, including The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim and the International Center of Photography. 

‘Full of Grace’, the exhibition, opened in West Palm Beach in conjunction with Fotofusion, a five-day photography festival of seminars and workshops that is now in its seventeenth year. The show will stay at the Photographic Center there through March 17, after which it will travel to other American museums.

‘Full of Grace’, the book, has sold more than 4,000 copies in its English and Italian editions – and can be purchased online at the Cygnet Foundation. Net proceeds from its sale are donated to UNICEF.

Ellen Tolmie is UNICEF’s Senior Photography Editor. She was an advisor to the Full of Grace book project.




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