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Articles from May 2011

Children's Portraits

May 4, 2011

The portraits of children taken during the 1970’s always reminded me of late nineteenth-century photos. Families appeared to be on an assembly line in front of a blank backdrop, one followed by another. Only the clothes were different. Even the smiles looked canned. None of the photographs, either of families or children alone, seemed to capture the interior life of a child.

I fell into photography because I wanted to record my own children’s early years. And then I began to discover that all children fascinated me, not only my own. I didn’t view them as giggly small kids, but as individuals, each with their separate character.

Gaining access to my children’s school, working discreetly, what began as a few visits evolved into a project that lasted more than a decade and included photographing hundreds of children as they grew and changed. I learned a craft, fulfilled my original dream of recording my own children, provided other parents with pictures of theirs, covered my expenses, and raised money for the school. This was a win, win for everyone involved.

The few pictures in this show are taken from a series, “Children in Repose,” a body of my work that represents children portrayed as unique individuals with their own strong sense of identity, chosen from more than one hundred families of differing socioeconomic backgrounds throughout New York City, during the mid 1970’s.

I gained access to a wide variety of homes by selecting subjects from the children I knew, working with scouts who seemed to understand what I was looking for, taking my portfolio to headmasters in order to choose children in a variety of schools in different parts of the city (something that could never happen today). I was even bold enough to approach parents I saw on the street and ask for permission to photograph their children. I never knew what kind of results I would get. The child could be terrific, the background might be terrible. I’d pray that at the end of the day, I could get a few portraits that would be meaningful.

Getting a child to relax sufficiently so they no longer think of the camera or hear the click is the moment you able to help them be the person they are. It takes time, enormous patience, being totally focused on what is typical and what is not, so that when that one moment occurs you are able to grab and record it.

These recorded moments demonstrate clearly how boys and girls are different. Although we know this, it is even more obvious in my portraits. Boys for the most part have a more aggressive stance, and girls are more seductive. My photographs of children also underscore the fact that differences in socioeconomic background have a profound effect on how we emerge as men and women. Children on the lower economic scale are freer, their body language far looser. Going up the economic ladder children become significantly more inhibited; they are more self-conscious and stiffer. I didn’t set out to make a sociological statement, but the more pictures I took the more I noticed these differences.

The whole series was a labor of love and passion. The project came to an end when I was satisfied. I had photographed children in more than one hundred families, but as no one was interested in portraits of other people’s children, the pictures languished in my laundry room, untouched for more than thirty years. When I decided to redo the storage closet, I threw out fifteen to twenty boxes of archival prints, proof print, contact sheets, and negatives, including much of the work from my book “Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped our Times.” But as the children’s portraits were about to go, I thought “No… I can’t, I really love these.” So they remained untouched for another six years, until I needed more material for a website.

To see more portraits I’ve taken, please visit my gallery, lynn-gilbert.com/gallery/children-in-repose

Lynn Gilbert
05/04/11

Lynn Gilbert is a photographer from New York. Occasionally she writes an article for Parade.

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