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  • Photography in Children's Books:A Generic Approach
  • Julia Hirsch (bio)

Photography in children's books is coming of age. While in 1968 it was still regarded as a sideshow in the larger field of illustration, this point of view can no longer be justified.1 Today books with photographs are numerous and touch on a broad range of important subjects, from space exploration to the history of ethnic minorities.2 Still, any effort to survey the scope and number of these works is impeded by the difficulty of establishing a comprehensive bibliography. Library catalogs do not as yet generally distinguish photographically illustrated books from books illustrated with other types of images. Even if they did, the labels themselves would hardly begin to give us a critical understanding of the photographic illustration. The most fruitful approach, for now, appears to be a generic survey aimed at discerning the types of photographs currently found in children's books. To this end we must begin with definitions.

Photographs have been used to illustrate a great variety of children's books. They illustrate inventories—of trucks, railroad cars, spacecraft and plants—narratives about pets, public institutions, historical events, remote countries, architectural studies, wildlife, and people in a variety of life situations. Publishers and librarians usually distinguish between picture books, which call for little reading, and illustrated books which require a substantial amount of literacy. This distinction gives us some idea of the decoding skills the viewer will need to make sense of the book, but does not account for the visual texture and spatial depth of the pictures themselves.

The standard bibliographical distinction between fiction and nonfiction proves similarly unsatisfying. Photography has been used to view all kinds of subjects with a fair measure of objectivity; the images alone, viewed apart from their texts, offer us few clues as to whether the photographs represent reality or a scene deliberately set up for illustrative purposes. Many photographic illustrations show obviously staged scenes, a technique which can work as well or as badly as any other artistic invention. In the early photographic works by William Clayton Pryor and Helen Sloman Pryor, for instance, the artifice works poorly.3 Here the authors appear to have used their own children as models in a series of photographically illustrated books about trains. But the tidiness and decorum of the girl and [End Page 140] boy—so unlike the more customary tumult of traveling children—gives the technically successful images an emotional blandness that dulls the books' interesting subject. Many of the photographs in Angelita4 and Kali5 are no doubt staged as well, but their respective subjects are posed to create particular moods echoed in the texts, and as a result of this the pictorial fiction works well because it openly and clearly explores recognizable and typical human emotions. The staged photographs in Bill Binzen's Alfred Goes Flying6—about two toy bears making and flying a toy plane—are equally engaging because their pretense is obvious and complete. All of these very different books are fiction, but the adjective is powerless in describing the photographs which attempt to convince us of their own reality.

Archivists, art critics, and historians of photography take an entirely different tack in classifying images. They describe photographs according to their content. Typically, they distinguish between photographs that provide information and those that suggest or evoke. While these categories are as slippery as any other, they help us to recognize such important sources of photographic effect as camera angle, placement of the subject within the frame, perspective, definition, cropping, technical aspects of image-making that are the least conspicuous in documentary images, and the most observable in the lyrical pictures we often call photo essays. Such distinctions are valuable in evaluating the photographs which appear in children's books.

Documentary photographs, which usually appear in black and white, are the visual equivalents of statistics and inventories, and, like numbers, serve chiefly to inform us. In a documentary photograph the subject is clearly in focus and is set against either a congruent, or an unobtrusive, background. Our emotions need not be addressed as they seldom are in the photographs that are used...


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pp. 140-155
Launched on MUSE
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