Scenes from childhood

The DeCordova’s classic kids photos, plus Pixnit’s graffiti, and Malcolm X
February 12, 2008 12:44:05 PM

Photos like Lange’s are iconic — but do they
get lost in the DeCordova’s overabundance?
Kids are the focus of the DeCordova Museum’s “Presumed Innocence: Photographic Perspectives of Children,” a baggy sampler of 114 photos and one video from the past century. It includes iconic photos like Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936). The mom wrinkles her brow and brings her hand to her chin in worry. Two of her children lean against her shoulders. A grimy-faced baby sleeps in her lap. They’re all in rags. “She said they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed,” Lange later recalled. “She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.” Lange photographed the family for a government program, partly aiming to drum up sympathy for Americans — in this case migrant farm workers — rendered destitute by the Depression. And, boy, was she successful. The composition recalls traditional Madonna-and-child paintings, right down to the pyramidal arrangement of shapes, a subconscious symbol of the mom’s strength as the weight of the world presses down upon her.

Another classic is Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1963 Children at a Puppet Theater II, which stares into the faces of three children at the front of a crowd watching a puppet show. They wear cute knit caps, sweaters, and shorts, like models from a knitting magazine. The puppet show is behind the photographer, and unseen by us. But we read it in their vivid expressions, eyes alive with thrill and worry, and the way one child sweetly grabs the hand of a neighbor.

“Presumed Innocence” “Pixnit: Folie Que La Nouveauté” DeCordova Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln | Through April 27 (“Innocence”) and Ongoing (“Pixnit”)

“Robert L. Haggins: Malcolm X: In Action” National Center of Afro-American Artists | 300 Walnut Ave, Boston | Through May 18
The exhibit was put together by the DeCordova’s director of curatorial affairs, Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, who drew exclusively from the collection of Anthony and Beth Terrana, respectively a periodontist and a former Fidelity fund manager who live in Wellesley. The theme of the title — the innocence or not of children, and the innocence or not of photographs of children — feels tacked on. The show is an occasion for a sampling of kids’ photos loosely grouped by subject: siblings, kids smoking, kids with animals, poverty, masks, and so on. There’s a who’s who of the past century of photographers: Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rineke Dijkstra, Elliot Erwitt, Robert Frank, Lewis Hine, Helen Levitt, Mary Ellen Mark, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Tina Modotti, Sebastião Salgado, Weegee. Somehow they managed to find the one Jock Sturges photo that isn’t stylish kiddie porn. New Englanders include Anne Hall, David Hilliard, Julee Holcombe, Jocelyn Lee, Laura McPhee, Abelardo Morell, and Nicholas Nixon.

Elmar Ludwig’s 1965-’72 Butlin’s Mosney — The Indoor Heated Pool, with dozens of parents and children playing in a large pool, has blues, reds, and oranges so pumped up, it feels like a dream. Sally Mann’s 1989 Naptime shows her young daughter Virginia lying on a bed, with two other kids curled up at the image’s top corners. The girl pins us with her direct, assertive, inquisitive stare. Catherine Angel contributes Helen, Nadine and Bessie, a tender 1997 portrait of her three sleeping daughters cuddled together like puppies.

The exhibition’s 100-year sweep makes photography trends apparent, from early-20th-century romanticism to gritty street photography. Recent images demonstrate how deadpan posed portraits and digitally pasted-together photos have become dominant modes in contemporary art photography.

But the show still feels aimless and diffuse. There are so many images by so many different artists that it all distracts from the great ones. A number of the big-name photographers seem to be here more for their name than for the photo. And the exhibit favors form over content in a way that leaches meaning from the photos — paired shots of kids in junky, desolate alleys look to be more about their matching compositions than about their matching poverty.

Some will blame these shortcomings on Lafo’s decision to draw from the works of a single private collection. But that’s a symptom rather than the source of the problem, which is slack curating. You could create a sharper “Presumed Innocence” by cutting out two-thirds of the pictures and zeroing in on one or two themes.


While you’re at the DeCordova, check out the new graffiti-style mural, Folie que la nouveauté, that covers the walls of the museum café. It’s by a Boston painter who goes by the pen name Pixnit. Although she has done street graffiti, you can sense her erudition and ambition in her name, which comes from the Latin “me pinxit,” or “he/she painted me.” Using stenciled spray paint and patterned contact paper, Pixnit “wallpapered” the café walls and added pictures of ornamental sconces, a mirror, a birdcage, a vase filled with flowers, and a “painting” of frolicking couples. Her punky decorative designs feel like chunkier versions of Ryan McGinness’s sleek pictograms. And one can’t help noting how the fame of Banksy’s stenciled graffiti has popularized stenciling. The result is light, frothy, pretty, dazzling.

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