Before there was Facebook

(Last Updated On: May 27, 2015)

It is now commonplace with digital cameras and social media for young people to express themselves. Some of these expressions are controversial and have lead to debates about personal freedom versus protection. When new technological developments become ubiquitous, it is hard for the new generation to imagine what life was like before. How did we ever manage?

I came upon this image on a sales site and just had to keep it in my files. I find it curiously compelling and I was especially delighted to learn that the photograph was shot by a child and there were once organizations promoting the development of artistic expression in children.

(Artist Unknown) - From The Child as Artist Exhibition (1967)

(Artist Unknown) – From ‘The Child as Artist’ Exhibition (1967)

I was intrigued by the following commentary:

This is a black-and-white print of one of the 28 color photographs in an exhibit entitled THE CHILD AS ARTIST adjacent to the theater in the U.S. Pavilion at EXPO 67. The attached 8 × 10-inch glossy and the four-foot color prints on display are enlargements from 3¼ × 4¼-inch Polaroid Land Polacolor photos snapped by children who previously had never used a camera. The 8 to 12-year-old youngsters from the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City shot the pictures on display and many others during a six-week summertime course aimed at “teaching them to ‘see’, to recognize and use visual language—color, shape, relationship of forms and content.” Disciplining their ability to “see” was done through the viewfinder of an instant-picture Polaroid Land camera which their instructor, professional photographer Miss Susan Wood, selected “as a teaching tool because they could see their results in 60 seconds and improve by reshooting on the spot.”
The 28 enlargements in THE CHILD AS ARTIST exhibit were made and donated by Modernage Color, Inc., of New York.

I asked an associate to look further into this but the current staff at the Henry Street Settlement were unable to add anything substantive and nothing else is known of Wood. Some arts programs are being offered at the Abrons Art Center which is associated with Henry Street such as: Big spaces/big art, Saturday morning cartoons, Fragmenting Realities: Still and moving digital images and Studio collectives. However, none of these programs offer anything similar in scope and breadth to the “freelance” or “street” photography genre that had been previously offered. Of course, the logic may be that with the proliferation of digital cameras and phone cameras (and tightening arts budgets), there is little benefit to a supervised program like this. In those days, 60-second photography was an exciting innovation; today, it pales in comparison to Photoshop and instant messaging.

5 thoughts on “Before there was Facebook

  1. ” In those days, 60-second photography was an exciting innovation; today, it pales in comparison to Photoshop and instant messaging.”

    I’m not so sure – I’ve done many workshops with children and adolescents in silver-based photography and alternative processes, including pinhole photography, ‘street photography’ combined with developing and printing their own films, and camera-less photography where they prepare their own photographic paper (cyanotypes).

    These are kids who have grown up on digital cameras and photoshop and invariably they come away enchanted, exhilarated and intrigued. I think it’s the hands-on, ‘alchemical’, ‘what-you-see-is-NOT-what-you-get’ aspects of it gives them a thrill, and a sense of being able to transform and interact magically with Reality through a medium so simple they can make it themselves (paper, chemicals, a box with a hole at one end).

    Generally after such workshops the kids

    • Yes, when taught by an inspired instructor, working with these materials can be more satisfying (and artistic) than just taking quick shots. The problem is convincing them to give it a try in the first place.

  2. There is another difference between that epoch and the present one. In the past, people did not mind being photographed. Now there is an obsession about ownership of one’s image. For instance in Germany, they passed a law forbidding to photograph people in public places without asking beforehand their consent. Thus there will not be any more images of people caught in their spontaneous life, except within families.

    • Yes, I forgot to mention this new phenomenon. The implication in Germany is that “street art” that is produced today would necessarily have to be staged and will lose that edge of spontaneity (eg. Zoltan Jokay). I believe this phenomenon is largely due to a growing paranoia about companies and governments monitoring ordinary citizens. Who knows how many of our images are lying in archives somewhere. Thank you for bringing this up. -Ron

      • I have an anecdote concerning the nature of such fears. I once heard on the radio an old woman artist who told that one day she was photographing children in a street, then a man approached and said her that it was fortunate that she was an old person, otherwise he would have smashed her face.

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