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June 07, 2004

Photographing Childhood Dreams and Transitions


Children have frequently been some of the most compelling subjects for photographs, given their range of expressions, their energy, and the degree to which their inner worlds and sense of discovery co-exist so openly with the details of their day to day lives (whether at school, at play, with families, etc). Even the stiffest, most documentary type studio portraits of a child can be opened up with a doleful stare, a distracted look away, or a close eyed dreamy expression...and while such expressions and energy have been mined (much too often) for cheap, sentimental and manipulative (not to mention creepy) ends in a good deal of popular culture and art, thoughtful photographers and artists have also appropriated children and mined their unconscious energy for more explicit staging of certain fantasies and tableaux (most notably, Sally Mann).

Getting at the inner worlds of younger children before they make the gradual (and painful) transition to adolescence can often be trickier, particularly as they grow more self-conscious -- as with other types of documentary, the "photographer as tourist" approach has severe limitations, for there can only be so much surmised by observing expressions and body language from the outside and documenting such. Two photographers -- Alessandra Sanguinetti and Andrea Modica -- have taken a more proactive and modern approach by engaging their subjects directly (even engaging in some subtle staging) and providing substantial and empathetic insight into dream worlds and transitions.

*Alessandra Sanguinetti has a series at the Yossi Milo Gallery, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of Their Dreams, which documents her work with two girls (nine and ten years old) in rural Argentina, in the transition to their teenage years and adulthood, through a focus on their dreams and imagination. In her words:

"I have attempted to interpret the ending of their childhood by entering their imaginary spaces. The time when their dreams, fantasies, and fears fuse seamlessly with real day-to-day life are ending, and the photographs I have made intend to crystallize this rapidly disappearing very personal and free space."

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Alessandra Sanguinetti image

Sanguinetti has a wonderful way with children (some earlier black and white portraits can be found here) and also happens to be very facile with color...her latest series, The Sixth Day, features the same rural area of Argentina and consists of open-ended, enigmatic square compositions focused on the co-existence of farmers, animals and land.

* Andrea Modica first came to prominence in 1996 with the publishing of her first monograph, Treadwell. As with Sanguinetti, Modica focused her energies on a rural family, this one located in upstate New York, photographing them extensively over several years with an 8x10 camera. The combination of a large format camera and a desolate, rural environment resulted in an interesting dynamic: rather than try to capture isolated moments quickly and spontaneously, and tie these to a sense of place and time, Modica engaged her subjects deliberately...to the point of staging multiple scenarios in collaboration with her subjects to create an open-ended narrative, where the nature of childhood and growing up itself seems like one big dream.

Treadwell is a wonderful book (and unfortunately seems to have gone out of print), but it doesn't work on the level a typical photo book does...doesn't dazzle you with oversized, glossy images, splashy saturated color, or moody, weighty black and white...it has none of the grandeur or immediate impact of a Salgado or McCurry or even Sally Mann monograph. In fact, I was rather underwhelmed at first, though it's now one of my favorite books to pick up randomly, for it seems I'll always find something new every time. Though I can't help feeling the luminosity of Modica's platinum prints are cheated somewhat by the printing done by Chronicle books, the relatively flat tonality and light (and the modestly sized images) do aid the mood of quiet and subtle discovery in Modica's compositions.

One leafs through the book and sees a variety of characters and settings, most notably Barbara (the heavyset star of Treadwell and Modica's latest book, who passed away in 2001)...she may be laying by a window, with a bag over her head, or simply looking away, and you think you've seen everything...but then looking around the image, small details pop up on body parts, around the background, in the shadows, even in the corners of the image. These are not the showiest platinum prints, but the depth and the feeling are there, without calling attention to technique (as it should be).

To provide just one example, the image below looks like a classically lovely and understated window light image of a young girl in a lacy dress...but what can't be seen without significant enlargement is the tension between the girl's luminous dress and the (extremely) tattered mattress, and the toy gun she's holding in her hand (cleverly hidden in shadow created by that beautiful light) pointed right at the viewer.

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Andrea Modica image, from Treadwell

Images from Treadwell can be seen in a small sampler here, and a more comprehensive group can be seen at the Houk gallery here. The impact of viewing the images chronologically, ironically, is to witness life in reverse: early on, a series of scenarios depict Barbara exploring the trappings of adulthood (including sexuality) in gently playful and mystic ways..and then as death comes nearer, the images are mostly softly lit closeups in which Barbara appears to recede into infancy, looking in several photographs as if she has just emerged from the womb. (It's also somewhat ironic that the sepia tone given to the web images endows them with a more romantic feel than the more flatly toned image reproductions in Treadwell).

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Andrea Modica images of Barbara, 1994 and 2001


Modica's work has been highly and justifiably praised, and some of the highest praise has come from no less an authority than Sally Mann herself: "I know how hard it is to make pictures as deliberate and sensual, as real and mystical as these. But when Andrea does it, they seem effortless, unforced, radiant"

More recent portraits from Andrea Modica can be seen here. Modica also has more impressionistic images (from earlier in her career?) viewable here and a still-life series, Human Being, viewable at the Houk Gallery as well.

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Posted by: Chris Keeley at Jun 7, 2004 11:24:12 PM