Online Edition: Spring 2003

Priceless Children

Priceless Children

American Photographs 1890-1925
Child Labor and the Pictorialist Ideal

George Dimock, Tom Beck, Verna Posever Curtis, and Patricia J. Fanning

Weatherspoon Art Gallery ($22.50)

by Tim Peterson

This volume is the companion to an exhibit which featured photographs by Lewis Hine and by photographers associated with the Pictorialist movement (F. Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence H. White, and Alfred Steiglitz, among others). The book contains three essays: the introductory title piece by George Dimock, which compares Hine's depictions of children with Pictorialist ones; Tom Beck's sensitive essay "Duality in Lewis Hine's Child Labor Photographs," which tells an engaging and well-documented story about Hine's interests and conflicts; and "F. Holland Day: Beauty is Youth" by Verna Posever Curtis and Patricia J. Fanning, an essay which thoughtfully details the synthesis between the artist's work and his life.

Priceless Children may be most valuable and exciting in showcasing Lewis Hine's empathetic child labor photographs and their wonderfully humanizing captions. In a few short lines, Hine could give evocative sketches of workers' lives, and these details make the photographs more moving for contemporary viewers because they provide context for an otherwise anonymous image. In other words, the social rhetoric in Hine's photographs enhances their artistic effect.

But Dimock, the curator of Priceless Children, has chosen to tell a different story, one in which "the artistic" and "the social" suffer an a priori separation from one another, as if art were somehow decorative or useless, opposed to or separate from social action. This seems an odd strategy for examining the work of an artist such as Hine, whose photography pursued the goal of social change, or Pictorialists such as Day and White, whose work did not directly promote a cause but who were active in socialist circles. Dimock's essay uses the lens of an "ideologically powerful concept" called "the priceless child" and finds all the photographers in the show guilty of self-indulgent artmaking at the expense of their social ideals. According to Dimock, "The story of Lewis Hine and the National Child Labor Committee has been told most often as a romance of child rescue...but that was a story for a more optimistic and less embattled era than our own." It remains unclear, however, why this might be a necessary revision. Although Dimock's constellation of interests is evocative, important aspects of his argument remain obscure, and he neglects to explain why these different photographers have been gathered together for examination in the first place. This introduction leaves one with the impression that, for this exhibition, one really had to be there.

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Spring 2003 Table of Contents