Where Did Childhood Go?

Taking a child’s life is an act beyond comprehension — immoral, unspeakable. Watching the news is almost too difficult for me right now; and I’m trying to contribute my voice to gun control reform and treatment for the mentally ill. Well, actually, I’m not trying hard enough. I’m upset. I’ve been stymied by a more hazy, more general question:

Who stole childhood?

…in the mass media, in our homes. Have you noticed how Society thinks nothing of taking away a young person’s right to their own Innocence? How it steals from them a precious bank of time they can never get back, one that would allow them to grow into the person they need to be, steadily, healthily?

Parents do this when they unknowingly heap their own problems onto their kids, filling their minds with concepts too complicated for them to process; making them feel helpless, at a loss. “I know I can’t really do this thing my folks expect of me,” a kid thinks when they’re expected to offer a divorced mom comfort; or convince a dad that he hasn’t wasted his life, “yet I still feel somehow responsible.”

And then there’s this…silence, this blindness to the Media and the way it sexualizes our pre-teen girls, and mangles the natural sensitivity of our boys. Just last night I took my son (who’s 11) to movie for ‘kids’; but first, the theater showed five previews: one dramatizing an actual military assassination; another had a rape scene. Before the feature even started I marched up to the manager — himself barely more than a kid — and demanded Why? Why did an audience full of children have to see R-rated material?

“I just show the previews the owner tells me to,” he said.

He shows them, yes, but, I wonder, does he see them?

I don’t think he can, at this point. His generation can’t remember anything that came before this awful, stupid ‘norm.’

There are many self-help books on shelves that can help you to reclaim your own sense of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call (vandalized) innocence. But I find art more to be more effective.  Artists are clued into Society’s warning signs; they show us what’s brewing under the surface and help us comprehend it in a non-verbal way. Heck, they, themselves, often don’t know why they do this. But that’s kind of the beauty.

Two lesser-known contemporary photographers come to my mind. (How appropriate: mass-media photographs, hurtful; fine-art photographs, helpful…) You may not have heard of them yet, but you will. Both are obsessed with childhood, albeit in different ways.

One is Jessica Tampas, a middle-aged woman with a thriving commercial photo business in the Chicago Loop area. When she isn’t making portraits of kids in her 2400-foot studio for her ‘day’ job, (or taking care of her young son) at every opportunity she’s photographing these: a series called simply “Dolls” until she gets a better title, images, dead-on shots, of mid-century dolls made out of ‘composite,’ a plaster-like material that predates plastic.

She collects them (hundreds) from Internet sites and does absolutely nothing to them (zero alteration to their painted-on eyelashes, their matted — at times, human — hair). They’re quite large (60″ x 80″) and highly detailed. Tampas spares us nothing, on purpose, all the better to look into what she considers the ‘broken’ aspects of a little life and find something she feels is essentially Human. For the artist, they hold a message about survival against all odds, coming out of childhood alive. That said, they’re also part of a typology of, well, whatever you like: what it meant to be a good little boy; what it meant to be daddy’s favorite girl.

Florida-based David Gregory Taylor, painter, photographer, draftsman, is an avid reader of Thomas Aquinas; he believes that faith cuts across the ages, and that there’s no time-limit to kindness. In practical terms, that means: do something for a child, now, and you heal the spirits and hearts of the many children who came before — perhaps even yourself. Taylor’s the son of a day laborer, and he feels very keenly the plight of kids who have been put to work out in the fields and in factories before their bodies were even capable to sustain such repetitive, grueling activity. In his photographic images, digital collages, really, he appropriates archival early-20th-century images of Child Labor — everything from urban street urchins to tiny migrant workers — and then ‘intervenes’ on their behalf, including these fiery, luminous swirls over their portraits. Some stare into the camera, this newfangled apparatus, sort of stunned; others smile. Do they feel the artist’s presence, years later? One wonders. Taylor thinks of these as portraits of Compassion, and with them, he’s trying to create a new, bridged image, between migrant worker and son.
In his real life, Taylor, himself childless, adopted for himself the task of putting a fatherless boy whom he’d met in Florida through college. He used the sale of these photographic prints to do so. Taylor reasons that these children would have loved, but didn’t get the chance, to go to school. They helped give another kid and education, though.
G-d bless the fatherless child, and the artist who watches over him!

So: Does making art count as a meaningful act? It isn’t gun control or mental health-care reform. It may not be perceivable on the social spectrum in a way the meets the eye. But I’d say yes, making art, and looking at and appreciating art, makes a difference. The whole world is broken; you get up every day and it’s still not anywhere near perfect. But artists fix it a little bit by making it just that much more beautiful. And we help by saying: beauty matters.

I’ll close with a vintage photographic image. It’s the last page of my favorite book as a child, Alice in Wonderland. My mom used to read me Lewis Carroll’s works every night before I went to bed.

The world his books describes is absurd, phantasmagoric, but in an emotional way, it felt so real. Carroll was smart to use the literary device of encapsulating Alice’s adventures as a book-within-a-book. Maybe he was shielding Alice from attacks of Logic, naysayer critics, and perhaps, from Alice’s soon-to-be grownup self.

It’s interesting that Carroll was himself a photographer, (many thought him the finest amateur of his day). His portraits of Victorian-society — and  little girls in particular — are well known, though not as appreciated as they ought to be. He cropped prints with impunity, rounded off edges — whatever he felt worked for the effect he wanted — and plunked them in photo albums alongside the signatures of his young subjects.  Lust is there, skirting around the edges of his favorite subject, but, I’m sorry to say,  it’s probably the strength of his own unrequited impulses that drove him to make such idyllic images. Preserving the innocence and childhood of his sitters is so excruciatingly important to Carroll that he’ll go to all the aesthetic pains necessary.

And he succeeds. He encapsulates their childhood so well that — I’d like to think — he almost gives us back our own.

Jessica Tampas’ works can be seen on her website, jessicatampasphotography.com; David Taylor’s works are digital collages, all 2012 and  21″ x 29″, and can be found  on his website davidgregtaylor.com. Lewis Carroll’s photographs are reproduced from Helmut Gernsheim’s book Lewis Carroll, Photographer.

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