September 11: Children’s literature illustrated with photography is a phenomenon that developed after the Second World War. Photographs, more than any other kind of illustration, are documentary, and realist. You will read in the quite copious literature on children’s books that simplicity and caricature are the most successful forms, and photography can adapt to such requirements, but need it?
In more than one aspect the illustration of children’s literature is associated with the exhibition The Family of Man which I have been discussing here since my resumption of posting. My other interest in the use of photography in children’s and young adults’ books derives from my partner Lorena Carrington who is using digital photomontage in her illustration work.
One of the driving forces behind The Family of Man was its curator Edward Steichen‘s conviction that photography is a medium of universal communication and that therefore it could promote universal understanding, and with it, peace. Experience of curating Road to Victory (1942) and Power In The Pacific (1945), and more pointedly Korea: the Impact of War in Photographs (1951) had convinced him that;
Although I had presented war in all its grimness in three exhibitions [wrote Steichen in his autobiography], I had failed to accomplish my mission. I had not incited people into taking open and united action against war itself. This failure made me take stock of my fundamental idea. What was wrong? I came to the conclusion that I had been working from a negative approach, that what was needed was a positive statement on what a wonderful thing life was, how marvelous people were, and, above all, how alike people were in all parts of the world.
We live now amongst generations that forget the terror of global war and ignore the plight of refugees who flee the horrors and upheaval of conflict. To the contrary, our media; movies, television, interactive games, and, as servant to them, photography, feed a delight in destruction.
In the aftermath of WW2, people with quite different consciousness—which one might call humanist— formed the United Nations and its agencies the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), created in December 1946 for children facing famine and disease, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) created in 1950 to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes. Such humanitarian feeling is also what was behind Steichen’s selection of imagery for his exhibition.
Anna Riwkin-Brick (1908–1970) was a Russian-born Swedish photographer who contributed two photographs to the The Family of Man. One (above and below), shows a Palestinian woman protesting occupation by Israel in a conflict that is still devastating the lives of the children that Brian McCarty (see above) and his art therapist colleagues interview and whose stories he reconstructs using toys.
In the exhibition as it opened at MoMA, Riwkin-Brick’s picture protests not only about injustice in Palestine, but can be seen to raise the hand of remonstration against the Nazi persecution of Jews, a lynching in the Deep South (a picture later withdrawn), a summary Chinese military execution, and the adjacent photographs of starvation.
Riwkin-Brick’s other photograph is in complete contrast, and a curious selection; a photograph of a father comforting his little girl who has just had to answer the call of nature during a reindeer-trek across the frozen landscape of Lapland. The hand held up here in protest at the biting cold is a minor echo of that in the more dramatic photograph.
At the dawn of the twentieth century children’s books had become a focus of educational reform with the publication of early feminist Ellen Key’s seminal monograph Barnets århundrade (‘The Century of the Child’ 1900) which was translated into several European languages (including English, in 1909). Key, in whose Whitlockska samskolan Swedish secondary school in Östermalm, Stockholm Riwkin-Brick studied, envisaged children all over the world living in peace together and sharing abilities and interests; an optimistic image of childhood harking back to the pedagogues Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel. As a founding member of the “Stockholm circle” of Swedish authors, literary critics, and educationalists she participated in a the lively debate on the effectiveness of children’s books for mental and aesthetic maturation.
Echoing the calls for educational reform in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, Key proposed that children’s books should be aesthetically demanding and incorporate modern art styles. Key’s ideas, influenced by the German 1890s Jugendschriftenbewegung (‘youth writing movement’) and the British Fabian Society, ran counter to the prevailing patriotism and nationalism in mainstream books for children.
Such ideas were slow to catch on in photography-as-illustration in children’s picture-books however, though William Clayton and Helen Sloman Pryor’s The Train Book appeared as early as 1933, followed by a series of their ‘photographic picture books with a story’, on such topics as dirigibles, glass and paper (above). They are of a genre in which photography, as much as the rather dry text, serves to convey factual information, and the children (usually those of the author/photographers) appear neat, tidy and carefully posed; quite in contrast to an image of a little girl’s toilet in the snow!
In accord with the ideas promulgated by Ellen Key, UNESCO promoted children’s book exhibitions in libraries and book series for children that focus on the depiction of children’s everyday life in both European and non-European countries. The organisation commissioned the photo book series by Anna Riwkin-Brick (with texts by famous author Astrid Lindgren), and those of Dominique Darbois and Tim Gidal (with texts by Sonia Gidal); all eminently successful with high print runs and translations into several world languages.
Riwkin’s venture into juvenile picture books was incidental, a consequence of her success since the 1930s as a photojournalist when Swedish illustrated magazines such as Se and Vi were making their way into every household.
She was initially commissioned by UNESCO to make a photo book Vandrande by (Wandering Village, 1950) about the Sami people, targeted at an adult audience, for which she convinced Elly Jannes, journalist for the journal Vi, to write the text. Anna stayed with a Sami family and was charmed by their little girl Elle Kari, taking many photos of her that were not included in Vandrande by.
Jannes suggested making another photo book about Elle Kari for a child audience. Published in 1951, it was not only Riwkin-Brick’s first photo book for children, but also the first Swedish picturebook with photos to follow the everyday life of a child in a continuous story. The book was a success; 25,000 copies, a huge print run, were released in each of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States and it was translated into eighteen languages.
It complemented her world travel in her magazine work for Riwkin-Brick to produce the books. It is usual for books in this genre to be a collaboration and her total of fourteen photo books were written by different authors; while the famous Astrid Lindgren wrote the text for nine of them, which contributed to Anna’s success, others equally talented penned the text for at least one; including Lea Goldberg, Cordelia Edvardson, an immigrant from Germany to Sweden, Riwkin-Brick’s sister Eugenie Söderberg, and Vera Forsberg. Significantly, in 1963, Anna Riwkin-Brick was the first photographer, instead of an illustrator, to receive the Elsa Beskow Medal.
It is in the nature of Riwkin-Brick’s photographs to promote curiosity and empathy, because they remain documentary. The engagement with the child subject, though they do not always look at the camera, results from angles shot close to their sight-line, and there is always a sense that they are caught in the thick of domestic action, unposed doing some things familiar to the young audience, but in places, with objects and in clothes that are different from their own experience.
Riwkin-Brick’s career as a photo book artist for children continued until her death in 1970 and numbers of other photographers joined her in making imagery for the books published as variously named series through different publishers, including Methuen, London, who produced the ‘Children Everywhere’ titles.
The photographers included Dmitri Baltermans, Charles de Jaeger, Marilyn Silverstone and Camilla Jessel, as well as my own father, who at the end of his own life went to Central Australia to photograph Graham is an Aboriginal Boy, over which I remember having disagreeing with him about the word ‘aborigine’. I argued that aboriginal was more correct because we say someone is ‘an original’ not an ‘origine’. He and the author Stanley Marks stuck with the more latinate ‘aborigine’. There’s no denying these books are dated and colonialist; a nosy peep through the parlour window into other ‘strange’ cultures. That was underlined in this case by the early death of Graham, who suffered health issues as did (and do) many indigenous Australians, in shamefully high disproportion to the rest of the population, due to the erosion of their traditional lifestyles and diet. We have moved on, but the books’ motivation was noble and not corrupt, merely a little ignorant.
Riwkin-Brick’s pioneering photobooks are in the same spirit as The Family of Man, keep alive the ideals of Ellen Key, and the universal goals of the United Nations, while engaging not only their child readers, but also their parents who turn the pages for them.