I would like you to meet my adopted children. I’ve rescued these orphans from garage sales and estate sales, from thrift stores and flea markets, antique shops and antique shows. They’d been separated from their families of origin (from many countries) by time, circumstance and forgetfulness. I chose my adoptees carefully, favoring the beautiful, the strange, the poignant, the comic, and the unsettling. I wanted to give them a new home and a new life, as well as introduce them to sympathetic and appreciative strangers. Even thus rescued from anonymous piles of wayward images, many of these children had to be further rescued from deterioration and obscuration because their photographic substrates had aged and decayed over many decades, some more than a century. I took the necessary liberties (via Photoshop forensics) to transform, as much as possible, those particular damaged children from being incidental subjects of dissolving photographic artifacts into full and present human beings. I did not, however, take any such liberties with their in-the-flesh appearance. My intent is to present them as they are, not to idealize or beautify them (even if that was the intent of the photographer). Only a few images required serious reconstructive surgery, as when a face had been disfigured nearly beyond recognition.
A majority of the original photographs are portraits, formal or informal, of a single child, which I generally reproduced more or less as is (though sometimes cropped to bring close attention to the child’s face). Sometimes, however, my orphans appeared within family groupings or alongside schoolmates. In most of those cases, I cropped the original image to isolate a single child, because I felt she or he deserved to be encountered in their solitary individuality. Thus, a number of the images in this book reveal only a small fragment of the original photograph. Some early photographic processes (e.g. albumin cabinet cards) stand up better to such substantive enlarging than do others (e.g. tintypes). In every case, my effort has been to present to the viewer an actual human being, with as much physical - and psychological - realism as possible. Think of these images, then, not as vintage photographs (though they certainly are that, and have their own interest as such), but as close encounters with fellow humans, young ones, living in other times and places.
But why only children? I’ve limited this collection to the young because they are, generally, less psychologically guarded than are adults and therefore often more transparent and interesting as subjects. However formal or staid the circumstances of the original photo-taking, however stiff and unnatural the Sunday attire, however immobilized the young subject, however frozen the face, the humanity of the child very often shines through - at least to a sensitive, observant eye. Unbridled happiness and poignant sadness are here on display, as well as unabashed wonder, surprise and fear. I did not choose children, as a category, because they’re cute and precious, but because they reveal humanity and the human condition in a compelling manner.
Having said that, I admit to being particularly drawn to the quality of innocence. We look upon the face of a child with tenderness and curiosity in part because they mirror our own lost childhood. We can sometimes detect in their faces our own original ability to simply be ourselves, without artifice, without masks, relatively free from learned mannerisms. They embody that state of grace which existed before we became someone or something other than who we inwardly felt ourselves to be. We cannot help but feel, at some level, nostalgia for a real or imagined lost paradise of purity, simplicity and happiness, and so the gaze of a child can have a redemptive effect on our calcified hearts.
Beyond the fact that these are children whose relative openness and naturalness offers a privileged view into the human condition, we cannot help but be curious about them as distinct individuals. I find myself wondering about this boy or girl who peers into the camera lens and into my eyes. What is this particular child’s experience of life? How does she feel at this moment, as the shutter clicks? Is she able to “be herself” within the posed family tableau? Is family turbulence or tragedy already written upon that boy’s face? What is that vague melancholy that seems to shadow the eyes of this other child, even that smiling one. Has he, under the parental and societal regime, begun to lose his innate capacity for openness and spontaneity, having learned to become self-conscious and self-censoring? What kind of adult did this girl eventually become? Whom and what did he love, what did he achieve, what wonders or horrors did he experience in life? How long did this boy live and how did he die? No doubt some of these boys died as soldiers in the First World War. No doubt other children died during the influenza epidemic that followed the war. Are any traces of these children preserved in the public record, or even in family lore? Where are they now and who are they now? Let our eyes meet those of the young souls who live in these pages. It is our very gaze that grants them new life, an afterlife of sorts in this realm of shadows.
Despite my focus on the subjects themselves rather than the medium — the children depicted rather than the bits of paper and tin upon which their images were long ago imprinted — these images are, indeed, photographic documents: two-dimensional pictorial representations, existing first as photographic prints, then, following digitization and selective manipulation, as electronic images, and finally as ink-printed images in this book. As images, they qualify to be viewed as visual constructs, and therefore approached as objects of art. All the more so because it has not always been possible to extricate the child entirely from the deterioration that has altered his or her appearance. We see, herein, children whose faces appear to have strange rashes (grain/noise), children with cruel gouges in their faces (mostly mended), children whose skin has assumed strange colorations, children whose faces are surrounded by a strange light or the edges of whose faces have begun to disappear into the ambient atmosphere, not to mention children partially consumed by creeping masses of metallic rust or by undifferentiated blobs of chemical gunk. Even the simple act of extracting one small face from a full family portrait and monumentalizing it through enlargement creates a radically new composition, a new visual idea. What you see in this book, therefore, are images both original and reconstructed, massaged into final form by one who is himself a visual artist - a photographer deeply concerned with photographs as wondrous aesthetic objects.