Priceless Children: American Photographs 1890–1925
Child Labor and the Pictorialist Ideal Childhood is often viewed as a time of innocence and carefree abandon. Yet the majority of children around the world work long hours—as did most children in the United States until less than a century ago. Priceless Children offers two different views of the American child at the turn of the twentieth century, juxtaposing Lewis Hine’s indignant photographs of working-class children with idealized images of middle- and upper-class children by Pictorialist photographers. Despite their manifest differences, all the works in the exhibition reflect a fundamental shift in American notions about childhood, as it came to be seen, in the words of one historian, as “economically ‘worthless’ but emotionally ‘priceless.’ ”
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, child labor was generally deemed necessary to sustain a family-based agrarian economy. With the advent of modern factories, children worked—as did their parents—under dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Early in the twentieth century, liberal activists began campaigning to abolish child labor. Priceless Children includes two groups of photographs. The first comprises images of working-class children by Lewis Hine, most of them made for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), a Progressive organization devoted to social reform. Arriving in New York in 1901 to teach at the Ethical Culture School, Hine acquired a camera as a pedagogical tool and trained himself to use it. By 1904 he was documenting newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island; four years later he quit teaching to pursue photography full time. Over the following decade he worked as a photographer, researcher, and publicist for the NCLC, traveling around the United States to chronicle the hardships of children working in factories, mines, and fields. Hine recorded his observations in detailed field notes (which provided the titles for his works on view here) as well as on film. Evenly lit, sharply focused, and highly detailed, his gelatin silver prints were designed for NCLC lectures and exhibitions—in addition to books, magazines, and pamphlets, where they were reproduced via halftone, a recently invented, quick and inexpensive method. Hine received his last major commission in the early 1930s, when he documented construction workers erecting what was then the world’s tallest structure, the Empire State Building in New York.
The second group features works by the Pictorialists—represented here by F. Holland
Day, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence H. White, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward J. Steichen, and Edward Weston—depicting middle- and upper-class American children in comfortable domestic interiors, schoolrooms, or idyllic landscapes. Committed to promoting photography as a fine art, the Pictorialists created highly aestheticized images, often with misty overtones of symbolism, orientalism, and even eroticism. Emulating oil paintings in both subject and style, their soft-focus photographs were carefully composed, dramatically lit, and painstakingly printed using costly methods such as the platinum process—which registers a subtle range of tones—on textured paper. Bearing evocative titles and reproduced through sumptuous techniques such as photogravure, their pictures appeared in luxury periodicals like Camera Work, which Stieglitz edited. Although Pictorialism had reached its peak before the end of the First World War, many of its guiding principles—such as photographic manipulation and invented narrative—are currently enjoying a revival.
Bringing together social documentary and fine-art photography, Priceless Children not
only joins the ongoing debate over classifications of the medium, but also underscores the historical mutability of childhood as well as the complexity and intensity of our own attitudes toward the subject. Many of the exhibition’s images challenge common assumptions about child labor and the middle-class family. For example, Hine’s working-class children, who were presented to reform-minded audiences as victims of harshly inhumane conditions, often embody an exhuberance, sociability, and freedom that their more privileged and closely guarded peers might well have envied. The middle-class children depicted by the Pictorialists, on the other hand, inhabit a world that appears ideal, but that could be exceedingly claustrophobic. Today, when the status of childhood and the rights of children are again being hotly debated, Priceless Children reminds us that at least once before in America’s history the welfare of children served as a rallying point for social reform. The concept of the “priceless child,” for all its contradictions and limitations, derives from an effort to imagine—and promote—a happy, healthy childhood as a universal birthright.