Frédérique Destribats on Children’s PhotoBooks
As photography developed in the wake of its invention in 1839, constant improvement in processing and printing techniques, quality and production, accelerated the distribution of the photobook and contributed to its success. Naturally feeding on this history, photographically illustrated books for children were introduced by the end of the nineteenth century. Their expansion was encouraged by such events as the gradual introduction of laws implementing compulsory schooling, which led to a rising demand for illustrated books from the growing numbers of young readers and educational institutions.
The first photographically illustrated books for children came in the form of photo albums carefully created and crafted by parents. These would sometimes be published for a larger audience, as was the case for Seelchens gute Tat by Lulu Meusser (privately published by Hermann Meusser in Berlin circa 1920)—a charming example of an early photo album for young people, with original photographic prints and a creative, if somewhat conformist, story about motherless girls and their quest to reach heaven. Youth literature, which had long focused on matters relating to religion, morality, conventional behavior, and education, experienced a shift in the twentieth century, opening up to whimsical storytelling and design, while also introducing sensitive societal issues.
Photographically illustrated books for children evolved over time and came to encompass every photographic style and genre: straight documentary photography; fabricated images and staged scenes with children, animals, figurines, etc.; visual and graphic experiments; photomontage; and so on. Whether professional or amateur, famous or anonymous, a long list of authors, poets, illustrators, and artists have explored the children’s photobook genre. Illustrious names include Laure Albin-Guillot, Claude Cahun, Edward S. Curtis, Dominique Darbois, Robert Doisneau, Tana Hoban, Frank Horvat, Eikoh Hosoe, André Kertész, Danny Lyon, Duane Michals, Sarah Moon, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Claude Roy, Cindy Sherman, Edward Steichen, William Wegman, and Ylla, to acknowledge but a few. Their topics ranged from the magical to the ordinary, with a large range of creative stories, artists’ books, textbooks, illustrated dictionaries, pictorial alphabets, how-to manuals, and educational guides covering the full range of youth-related concerns and interests. These books not only function as tools allowing children to nurture their imaginations and improve their understanding of the world, they also constitute fascinating commentaries on society. An extensive history of the genre would show that children’s photobooks are in tune with, and often even ahead of, their time.
Since the mid-1980s, however, photography has largely disappeared from children’s and young adults’ bookshelves. The medium seems to have been mostly abandoned for these audiences, while the number of titles intended for the same demographic but based on text and hand-drawn or digital illustrations—graphic novels and manga, for example—has steadily grown. I find this odd, considering that this is a time when the flow of images has been growing; it’s a disconcerting development for a genre that has proven to be highly creative and innovative.
Here are but two examples of photobooks from the late twentieth century that strike a decidedly sociological tone, while eschewing the potentially infantilizing tone of books for children. First is Zeig Mal! (Show me!), which was released by the Wuppertal Evangelical Youth Book Publisher in 1974 and is a stunningly poetic, realistic guide to sexual education. The large-format book is illustrated with black-and-white photographs by Will McBride, keen observer of sexuality and proponent of sexual liberation. A foreword by child psychologist Helga Fleischhauer-Hardt advocates the need for psycho-pedagogical, ethical, and enlightened sex education. Delicate close-ups of nude babies, toddlers, kids, teens, and adults in candidly tender scenes, in the many stages and variants of our sexual lives—parts of the universal, natural cycle—are printed alongside spontaneous quotes from children, used as captions for the images. Nothing is deemed “too adult” (although the English version, released six months after the original German, was slightly “polished”). The book was, for the most part, well-received upon its release, and McBride was initially praised for his photographs. Soon enough, however, this uninhibited approach ignited morality fires. The book faced sensationalistic critics and multiple accusations—including that it allegedly had pornographic intent—and was finally removed from the market in 1996. Incidentally, so has photography from subsequent such publications, generally to be replaced by hand-drawn illustrations.
Børnenes Billedbog (The children’s picture book) by Jesper Höm and Sven Grønlykke is a relatively small yet thick volume of black-and-white images and no text, save for the title and copyright information. Originally published in Denmark in 1975, it has been reissued several times, including in the United States as For Kids Only: An Adventure in Reading without Words. The raw production and average printing set it apart from the graphic, colorful design standards of most children’s photobooks. This little-known and poetic photographic ode is a gem: it contains roughly five hundred full-bleed pages of photographs from all over that display a collection of plants and animals, still lifes, children and dolls, clowns and skeletons, bits and pieces of everyday life, and details of all kinds, loosely composed in short sequences or free associations. It’s a whimsical, kaleidoscopic vision of the world. Nothing is explicitly suggested or narrated—rare for a children’s book. Readers are simply invited to ruffle through the pages at will and create their own associations, stories, and interpretations, on their own or with the help of a grown-up.
Frédérique Destribats is a translator for numerous photography books, publications, and magazines, including ELSE magazine, published by the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland. She is the guest curator for the forthcoming second issue of Co-Curate Magazine.
Seelchens gute Tat
Hermann Meusser • Berlin, ca. 1920
Hammer • Wuppertal, Germany, 1990
Jesper Höm and Sven Grønlykke
Forlaget Per Kofod • Helsingør, Denmark, 1996
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.