Even before the development of twentieth-century phenomena such as the ‘snapshot’, photography was a populist medium. It brought small, accessible amusements, which appealed beyond the ranks of the middle classes. Photographs were mass-produced from the 1860s for collecting in albums or giving to friends. A picture of the Princess of Wales carrying one of her children piggyback was among the most popular.1 The aim was appeal, and children were the most appealing of all.
But together with fulfillment came the threat of disruption. Childhood poses a challenge to the stability of adulthood. Children bear the burden of a nostalgia for a remembered childish self – a nostalgia which becomes clear in panics about the uncontrollability of real children. From the innocents in the baby books to the kids of advertising, behind many a picture of a child lies an effort to gain control over childhood and its implications – both over actual children and over a personal childhood which adults constantly mourn and constantly reinvent.
Widely distributed art needs to be “pretty and elegant” according to political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, who first described the phenomenon in the United States in the 1830s.2 And “pretty and elegant” pictures of children enjoyed a huge popularity, ranging from reproductions of paintings* to picture postcards. Photography was a form of visual pleasure which could easily slide into a working-class parlor. It combined vulgarity with the “embarrassing pretentiousness” of the aspirant classes.3
But pictures of children contained elements of the rational as well as the romantic. They were a way of expressing longing for a better world, and part of a more indulgent attitude towards real-life children. Shorter working hours meant that by the nineteenth century a greater portion of the population had time for recreations that were confined to the middle classes – and more time for their children.4
Photography was a central aspect of modernity and part of a cult of domesticity which put youngsters
at its center.
But the decisive development in the commercialization of public imagery was the emergence of an advertising industry serving an economy based on consumption. The distribution of public images went hand in hand with the expansion of the domestic realm as a site of consumption. Advertisers became the main distributors of pictures, anxious to exploit – and to exaggerate – the tastes of the era.5
In 1886, the Pears Company bought the rights to Millais’ Cherry Ripe, while another hugely popular child painting, Bubbles, was used to advertise soap.6 Viewing a photograph now required increased sophistication. The viewer had to separate the content (attractive child) and the promotional message (buy this soap). It became difficult to take any picture at its face value. The seeds of cynicism and irony had been planted.
From the turn of the twentieth century, every public picture carried an expectation of who its viewers would be. The space in front of the picture frame was originally occupied by the picture-maker. It is now designed for occupation by the picture-viewer, who may be in a number of different roles: caring parent, eager consumer, charitable donor – or even a child. A structure of looking is brought to any picture. It may well leave little room for subjects to maneuver – particularly when they are youth.
A glance at headlines demonstrates that a child’s childhood can all too easily be taken from them. “So Old and Yet So Young, Pity Our Lost Children” is an article on teenage parents. “The Corporatisation of Childhood” is an article on consumerism. “Give Children the Chance of Being
Children” heads a letter about upbringing. The first article by Rowan Williams, after his appointment as
Archbishop of Canterbury, is titled “The Loss of Childhood: Why We Must Preserve Innocence.”
When the line between childhood and adulthood is blurred, disaster ensues. The presence of a child can easily upset an adult’s search for stability. While pictures ‘prove’ that childhood is never left behind, one’s inner childhood is nothing like these images. Desire is balanced against disappointment.
As a result, the image continues to be beautified and smoothed over. In a world of rapid change, a child can be shown as unchanging. In a world dominated by commercial imagery, a child seems to be outside commerce.
As the image of a child promises a better world, it threatens the world one has. Youngsters introduce disorder into everyday life. They wet the bed. They spit up. They roll in mud. They have uncontrollable tantrums. Even worse, they may spill out onto the streets. This is where one finds the image of children alone, of children that are beyond the reach of school and family.* Such a picture creates a conflict between spontaneity and control.
At points, in posing questions about order, the photograph is able to leave aside the distinction between child and adult. Misbehaving youngsters are called ‘naughty’ and ‘bratty’. They are compared to animals or said to be close to madness. They are described as inexplicably evil. By challenging the legitimacy of control, pictures of children hold the potential to throw adult civilization itself into question.
Turning from the psychical to the social and historical dimensions of the relations between children and adults, it is clear that childhood has been constructed through a separation from the adult world. During the eighteen hundreds, children were removed from public spaces and confined to spaces designed especially for them. Compulsory education came to occupy their days.7 Homes became child-centered.
Pictures of childhood became institution based, and, in turn, institutions were affected by the image of childhood. As specifically designed locations were created, the equipment provided (be it picture books, Barbie dolls, or swing-sets) indicated a particular view of childish lives. Public images seem more concerned with the construction of a child-shaped space than with the individuality of the
youngster who is in it. Children’s lives are fraught with expectations.
Imagery may well look like a universal concept of childhood, but it is placed within a specific historical moment, and contributes to social contestation. By the end of the century, photographs were part of a consumer-based economy. Children who sell party gear, toy animals, breakfast cereals, bouncy castles, soft drinks, video games, and the rest of the paraphernalia of childhood are familiar from fliers, billboards, mail-order brochures, and a number of other promotional outlets.
The commercial image follows its own ‘rules’ and acknowledges no limits. It envisages a world in which pictures of children are commodities which enhance the desirability of other commodities – and in which youth are targeted as consumers with money to spend. At times, the children seem buried in their possessions. At others, the commercial image seems to have achieved the task of preserving childish values.
But the gap between desire and disappointment has widened. While the consumer image has become more carefree, the picture of a child suffering from harsh conditions has been inserted into public consciousness. Photojournalism has highlighted children who are outside the institutions designed for them – children sleeping in the streets, drug abuse among children, and children as the victims of physical abuse.
Enhanced ability to travel means that major disasters have become visible. In wars, children are among the first to suffer, and pictures of starving youngsters have become the symbols through which the majority of those wars penetrate Western media.* These children are not placed within a neat institutional context. They pose problems for the dominant image, yet they are necessary to it. They are exemplars of children’s dependent status. They are a warning to children who dare to resist their childish position.
Photographs of childhood pose the problem of continuity. Children are expected to mature into the established order, yet they are a threat to that order. Youngsters have not been in a position to construct a public image for themselves, and have had little-to-no control over the images made of them. They are a “muted group.”8 Without any input from children themselves, childhood can only remain an impossible concept, built by the picture-maker. Searched for, but never found.
* See John Millais’ Cherry Ripe (1879).
* See Sally Mann’s Candy Cigarette (1989).
* See Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl (1984) and Child Holding Hands (1999).
1 International Handbook of Children, Media, and Culture. Edited by Sonia Livingstone and Kirsten Drotner. (SAGE Publications, Ltd., 2008.) Google Books. Retrieved on 6 April 2017 from: https://books.google.ca/books?id=d2zeVof37AMC. Page 43.
2 Alexis de Tocqueville, “On Democracy and the Arts.” Daedalus. Vol. 89, No. 2, Mass Culture and Mass Media. (Spring, 1960.) JSTOR. Retrieved on 5 April 2017 from: www.jstor.org/stable/20026583. Page 404.
3 International Handbook of Children, Media, and Culture. Page 43.
4 Ronald Burke and Cary Cooper, The Long Work Hours Culture. (Emerald Group Publishing, 2008.) Google Books. Retrieved on 6 April 2017 from: https://books.google.ca/books?id=AJXnY9lqYvoC. Page 6.
5 Emily Rothkopf, “Photography-Based Advertising in the Digital Age: A New System of Meaning-Making.” (2014) Retrieved on 6 April, 2017 from: https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/cctp-725-fall2014/2014/05/02.
6 International Handbook of Children, Media, and Culture. Page 43.
7 Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood. Edited by Allison James and Alan Prout. (Routledge, 2015.) Google Books. Retrieved on 8 April, 2017 from: https://books.google.ca/books?id=q_EjCQAAQBAJ. Page 169.
8 Jan Mason and Bronwyn Steadman, “The Significance of the Conceptualisation of Childhood for Child Protection Policy.” (Family Research Pathways to Policy Conference, 1996.) Retrieved on 8 April, 2017 from: citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.460.3488=repl. Page 31.