PHOTOGRAPHY AND CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Updated: Feb 28
Having a university background in linguistics and having completed an introductory course in Writing for Children, it feels natural to be interested in and researching the topic of children’s literature with an emphasis on the visual aspect of children books. My focus of research will be on photographically illustrated books for children, and my intent is to develop a new project: a photographically illustrated story.
I agree with the writer David Campany who makes a point that “comparatively little attention has been paid to photographically illustrated books for children. They hardly appear in the histories of photography or children’s literature. This seems like an oversight” (2008), while at the same time there are plenty of well-known photographers who have done work in this area.
In my opinion one of the best works in the area is done by the photographer David Robinson. His book ‘The Mushroom Picker’ is a brilliant combination of a well-developed story and playful luminograms. Robinson collected and arranged mushrooms directly on plates to create the magical mushroom universe.
Fig. 1: Robinson 2012. Luminogram in the ‘The Mushroom Picker’ book
However, Robinson’s luminograms raise a question, one that is important to be asked and answered: are luminograms (and in extension all photograms) considered to be photographs? Which brings us further to additional questions: What exactly is a photograph? Can a photomontage be defined as a photograph or is it something that falls under photography and simply contains a photograph as one of its elements? What exactly is photography?
To begin with, it is important to define the concepts of photography and a photograph. Naomi Rosenblum explains that “for much of its existence, photography has been understood by most to be a process resulting in a negative image that can be replicated almost endlessly to produce positives in which tonal and spatial values are in normal relationship” (2007: 24). Since this definition is obviously quite limited as to what photography nowadays is considered by the majority to be (for example, considering the existence of direct positive prints or cameraless images), a re-definition is needed. Therefore, a broader viewpoint is expressed by Luca Bendandi, giving an observation that “in its original and purest form, photography requires only a straightforward combination of a few basic ingredients: light, an aperture of some kind, and a medium to record the resulting image” (2016: 10). Unfortunately, Bendandi’s definition makes an aperture as a must-have part of the process, excluding aperture-less images, therefore I consider it to be incomplete. This leads to paying attention to Rosenblum’s further statement which notes that photography might be redefined as “any process by which images are rendered by the action of light on a photosensitive surface” (2007: 642). According to Rosenblum’s definition, David Robinson’s luminograms do fall under the umbrella term photography, but the initial question still remains: is a luminogram (or any other cameraless image) a photograph?
John Berger explains that “in twentieth-century terms, photographs are records of things seen” (2013: 18). This means that in order for something to be called a photograph, it has to be real in the first place. What the definition at this point lacks, is the explanation of by what means something has to be recorded in order to be called a photograph as a record of a real thing seen can also be made by a pencil. Berger continues the discussion by adding that “the photograph is an automatic record through the mediation of light of a given event: yet it uses the given event to explain its recording” (2013: 19). From this statement we can draw a conclusion that there must be some sort of automatic mechanism involved in order for something to be called a photograph. Naturally, this immediately excludes all photograms. Similarly, Steve Edwards in ‘Photography: A Very Short Introduction’ refers to photographs as images coming from a lens-based apparatus (2006), excluding cameraless approaches of photography. So in order for an image to be referred to as a photograph, it has to be taken by some kind of mechanical camera. Furthermore, Edwards makes a point that anything including more than one photograph joined together is a photomontage. Using photographs in creative ways opens door to all kind of artistic expressions. John Szarkowski (1966: 6) emphasizes the difference between photography and traditional arts (painting) by reminding that we refer to photographs as something that we take and painting as something that we make. However, in the case of photomontage, one might say they are rather made than taken, although they do include individual parts that on their own were taken before making a photomontage. Keeping this in mind, I conclude that individual photographs are taken with the means of a mechanical apparatus, providing a further opportunity for making (or perhaps creating?) a photographic outcome that may fall under the broader term photography. Furthermore, photography is not limited to such individual photographs, but is rather an area that also includes any photogram resulting from an interaction between light and a photosensitive surface.
Having come to a conclusion what photography and photographs are, I would like to return to the topic of photographically illustrated books for children. Besides David Robinson there are plenty of other photographers worth mentioning who have worked with photographically illustrated children books, like William Wegman, Alexander Rodchenko, Claude Cahun, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Steichen, Jean S. Tucker, April Pulley Sayre, Nancy Rose, Russell Munson, Polly Borland just to name a few.
David Campany makes an observation that photographically illustrated children’s books fall into three broad categories: objects, situations and stories (2008). Books falling under the first category of objects will typically contain an object and an explanatory word for language acquisition purposes. Simple images will be used to illustrate simple words. One of the first such books about objects is Edward Steichen’s book ‘The First Picture Book: Everyday Things For Babies’ (1930) containing photographs that he took in a studio environment.
Fig. 2: Steichen 1930. Photograph in the ‘The First Picture Book: Everyday Things For Babies’ book
A slightly more complex version of objects and words is the category of situations. Elliott Erwitt’s photographs in ‘Le petit monde d’Elliott Erwitt’ (2013) is a good example of this category.
Fig. 3: Erwitt 1991-1998. Photographs in the ‘Le petit monde d’Elliott Erwitt’ book
The book provides photographs of different situations and explanatory words below them, so that a child would obtain certain vocabulary and be able to use the word in the future in a similar situation.
The last category is the most complex category for the learning acquisition process and has to do with stories that can be read by an adult to a child and later the child can read the story and draw parallels with photographic illustrations independently. Often photographers are working closely together with writers and other artists, and are not the authors of stories developed for children, but photographers rather take a role of story illustrators. For example, Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs (1926) of paper-cut animals illustrated Sergei Mikhailovich Tretiakov’s book ‘Samozveri’.
Fig. 4: Rodchenko 1926. Photo-illustration for the ‘Samozveri’ book
Claude Cahun’s photographs (1937) illustrated Lise Deharme’s book ‘Le Coeur de Pic’, and Russell Munson’s photographs of seagulls (1970-1998) illustrated Richard Bach’s fable ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ – a more complex story meant for both, children and adults.
Fig. 5: Munson c. 1970-1998. Photograph for the ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ book
Among some more recently published works are Polly Borland’s photo-illustrations (2005) for Lauren Child’s book ‘The Princess and the Pea’ and Gvido Kajons’s photographs of Arta Ozola-Jaunarāja’s illustrations (2020) for Arta Ozola-Jaunarāja’s book ‘Kurmītis un sudraba kurpes’. In both cases collages of set-up actions have been made by writers for the illustration purposes and then photographed.
Fig. 6: Borland 2005. Photo-illustration for the ‘The Princess and the Pea’ book
Fig. 7: Kajons 2020. Photo-illustration for the ‘Kurmītis un sudraba kurpes’ book
Collaborating with a writer and photographing set-up situations for illustrating a story requires developing a close relationship with the writer and a lot of discussion between the two to reach a common ground about how the final outcome should look like. To remain in full control over the visual and textual outcome, a photographer can also choose to develop a book singlehandedly. April Pulley Sayre’s book ‘Best in Snow’ and previously mentioned book ‘The Mushroom Picker’ by David Robinson are good examples of this category.
Fig. 8: Pulley Sayre 2016. Photographic image for the ‘Best in Snow’ book
This is where my own works falls under as well, as I plan to develop both, photography and the story. As a nature and animal photographer, I find myself inspired by the photographic images taken by April Pulley Sayre. However, my work often goes beyond straightforward photographic images that Pulley Sayre uses throughout her work. Driven by experimentation and a variety of approaches, I tend to explore also other possibilities in photography, like images taken with the means of a DSLR camera and a pinhole body cap.
Fig. 9: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Fallen leaves [pinhole cap on a DSLR camera]
As previously mentioned, I plan to develop a dummy book in the children storybook genre area, including photography (photographs, photomontages and other photographic images) that illustrates a story. Lately, I have found myself being fascinated by leaves and inspired by Sunder Ramu’s series ‘The Last Dance of the Leaves’ (2018).
Fig. 10: Ramu 2018. Photography in the exhibition ‘The Last Dance of the Leaves’
At the moment I am considering to involve leaves as subjects for the work, as well as other nature elements.
Fig. 11: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Work in progress #1 [digital photographic image]
Fig. 12: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Work in progress #2 [digital photographic image multiplied and mirrored]
Photography of natural world, may it be leaves, trees or birds, has been a subject of fascination by many photographers and can be traced back to the beginning of photography itself. We, humans, are a part of the natural world, hence it is not a surprise that one finds peace outdoors, wanting to connect with the Mother Earth through photography. Ansel Adams and Charles Pratt were once drawn to nature photography just as much as Eadweard Muybridge in the 19th century was curious to investigate animal motion.
Fig. 13: Adams c.1942. Leaves, Mount Rainer National Park, Washington [analogue photograph]
Fig. 14: Pratt 1968. Maine [analogue photograph]
More recently Matthew Maran was drawn to the exploration and documentation of the green open space of Hampstead Heath surrounded by London’s urban environment, seeking ways to represent the natural world through his photographic images.
Fig. 15: Maran 2016. A photograph in the 'Hampstead Heath, London's Countryside' book
LIST OF REFERENCES
BENDANDI, Luca (ed.). 2016. Experimental Photography: A Handbook of Techniques. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
BERGER, John. 2013. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin Classics.
CAMPANY, David. 2008. Strangely Simple or Simply Strange: Photobooks for Children. From David Company [online]. Available at: https://davidcampany.com/strangely-simple-or-simply-strange-photobooks-for-children/ [accessed 23 January 2022].
EDWARDS, Steve. 2006. Photography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
ROSENBLUM, Naomi. 2007. A World History of Photography (4th ed). New York; London: Abbeville Press Publishers.
SZARKOWSKI, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MoMA.
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1: ROBINSON, David. 2012. Luminogram in the ‘The Mushroom Picker’ book. From David Robinson. 2012. ‘The Mushroom Picker’ (unnumbered pages). London: Violette Editions.
Figure 2: STEICHEN, Edward. 1930. Photograph in the ‘The First Picture Book: Everyday Things For Babies’ book. From David Campany [online]. Available at: https://davidcampany.com/strangely-simple-or-simply-strange-photobooks-for-children/ [accessed 23 January 2022].
Figure 3: ERWITT, Elliott. 1991-1998. Photographs in the ‘Le petit monde d’Elliott Erwitt’ book. From Editions Tourbillon. 2013. ‘Le petit monde d’Elliott Erwitt’ (unnumbered pages). Paris: Editions Tourbillon.
Figure 4: RODCHENKO, Alexander. 1926. Photo-illustration for the ‘Samozveri’ book. From Sergei Mikhailovich Tretiakov. 1981. Translated by Susan Cook Summer. ‘Autoanimals (Samozveri)’. Art Journal, 41(3), p. 242.
Figure 5: MUNSON, Russell. c.1970-1998. Photograph for the ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ book. From BACH, Richard. 2014. ‘Johnathan Livingston Seagull’ (p.35). New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, New Delhi: Scribner.
Figure 6: BORLAND, Polly. 2005. Photo-illustration for the ‘The Princess and the Pea’ book. From Lauren Child. 2006. ‘The Princess and the Pea’ (unnumbered pages). London: Penguin Books.
Figure 7: KAJONS, Gvido. 2020. Photo-illustration for the ‘Kurmītis un sudraba kurpes’ book. From OZOLA-JAUNARĀJA, Arta. 2020. ‘Kurmītis un sudraba kurpes’ (unnumbered pages). Rīga: Apgāds Zvaigzne ABC.
Figure 8: PULLEY SAYRE, April. 2016. Photographic image for the ‘Best in Snow’ book. From April Pulley Sayre. 2016. ‘Best in Snow’ (unnumbered pages). New York: Simon & Schuster.
Figure 9: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Fallen leaves [pinhole cap on a DSLR camera].
Figure 10: RAMU, Sunder. 2018. Photography in the exhibition ‘The Last Dance of the Leaves’. From The News Minute [online]. Available at: https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/last-dance-leaves-art-celebrates-dying-beautifully-80116 [accessed 28 January 2022].
Figure 11: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Work in progress #1 [digital photographic image].
Figure 12: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Work in progress #2 [digital photographic image multiplied and mirrored].
Figure 13: ADAMS, Ansel. c.1942. Leaves, Mount Rainer National Park, Washington [analogue photograph]. From Andrea G. Stillman (ed.). 2007. ‘Ansel Adams 400 Photographs’ (p.216). New York, Boston, London: Little, Brown and Company.
Figure 14: PRATT, Charles. 1968. Maine [analogue photograph]. From Charles Pratt, 1982. ‘Photographs’ (p. 41). Aperture Inc.
Figure 15: MARAN, Matthew. 2016. A photograph in the 'Hampstead Heath, London's Countryside' book. From Matthew Maran, 2016. ‘Hampstead Heath, London's Countryside’ (p.79). London: Hemisphere Publishing.