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By Suzanne Révy, Associate Editor
Why are we so drawn to imagery of children? Perhaps it is because their unguarded nature in photographs encourages us to tap into a kind of collective consciousness, stirring the emotionally charged territories of our own psyches. Nestled among the gallery booths at last week’s AIPAD annual photography show was a curated presentation called Forever Young featuring three hundred works from the Joe Baio collection. Baio has amassed a unique and spectacular history of photography filtered through the lens of childhood, from vernacular imagery to documentary and street photographs to contemporary and emerging trends in photographic art. It is an unsentimental journey through the complexities of young lives around the world, organized thematically and installed salon-style on nine walls.
Upon entering the exhibit, Frederick Sommer’s extraordinary portrait, “Livia”, greeted viewers. She was surrounded by Ken Ohara’s faces from his series One (1971), selections from Sage Sohier’s series About Face (2008-2009), and Marie-Jo LaFontaine’s series Babylon Babies (2002) among others. Ohara described his images as a telephone book of faces exploring ideas about anonymity, while Sohier created simple and tender portraits of those with facial paralysis, and LaFontaine’s adolescents, presented with a variety of colorful backgrounds and social markers, are iconographic. Memories and psychological or physical scars are laid bare in the faces of, for example, Helen Levitt’s street urchins or Lewis Hines’ young laborers or Sally Mann’s languid summer portraits of her son and two daughters. All of these faces were powerful lures into Baio’s collection.
Within the exhibit, parental and familial relationships were presented with images from such diverse photographers as Seydou Keita, Elinor Carrucci, Björn Sterri, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lyle Ashton Harris and a photographer unknown to me earlier, Curran Hatleberg whose “Untitled (Front Porch), 2016” transported me into a mellow summer afternoon, confounded by a young girl whose prosthetic leg implied a tragic undercurrent to a Rockwellian American scene.
No collection of children would be complete without depicting play, and there was no shortage here. Leora Laor’s “Untitled #100” from her series Wanderland (2001-2003) of a young girl running down an ancient street in an Orthodox Israeli neighborhood is a fleeting moment captured in a public space, and yet has a fictional, cinematic quality. Similarly, William Klein’s “Stickball Player, NY, 1954” is bathed in urban light and tense with anticipation about what might happen next. In addition to these two striking images was a favorite by Helen Levitt from 1939 of three young boys loosely playing a game of baseball with a large tree branch in one of New York’s many empty lots. Anguish can often intrude on play, as in Dave Heath’s “Vengeful Sister, 1959” and Roger Mayne’s “Screaming Child, Southam Street (South Kensington), 1956”.
Kids smoking, riding or driving in cars, and engaged in religious rituals were a few of the other thematic sections of the presentation, but two collections of vernacular imagery were particularly arresting. Selected prints of Dr. Barnardo’s Orphans and the Priest’s Album depict portraits made of children in institutional care. Dr. Barnardo’s orphans were photographed, their names and ages recorded onto the plates or backs of prints which were then sold to raise funds for the orphanage. The priest, on the other hand, is something of a mystery, and it’s unknown why he made the pictures of young girls who were likely his catechism students. The album was discovered in a small church outside Paris after his death, and it is hard not to wonder if these children were nurtured or harmed within these institutions.
As stated at the exhibition, “The collection reflects the joy and pain, the mischief and burdens, and the freedom and conflicts experienced by children and adolescents around the world, all without sentimentality.” There is an art to curating and gathering photography, and Baio has mastered it by including a broad cross-section of photographic genres, styles and prints in Forever Young. His passion endows this assemblage with deep emotional resonance. What a rare treat to see this important private collection in a public space. We can only hope that it is published in book form so a wider audience can enjoy it.
Feature Image: Visitors to Forever Young: Selections from The Joe Baio Collection of Photography at the Photography Show Presented by AIPAD, April 5-8, 2018, Pier 94, New York City.
Installation photographs by Suzanne Révy.