When They Were Young: A Photographic Retrospective of Childhood

Tad Lincoln, son of President Abraham LincolnSince the birth of photography in 1839, the camera has been used to capture the human experience. For many photographers, childhood, so short-lived in terms of time but lasting in impact and memory, has been an inspiring subject. Preserving fleeting moments of youth on a glass plate or negative film allows them to be remembered and reconsidered. The pictures in this exhibition recall the spirit, vulnerability, playfulness, unpredictability, restlessness, and dignity of children throughout generations and in diverse parts of the world. From the tarnished silver surfaces of early nineteenth-century daguerreotypes, youngsters emerge like miniature adults, straining to remain motionless while their likenesses are preserved. A Civil War era carte de visite glorifies a small boy's role in that very adult conflict. At the turn of the twentieth century, studio portraits of Native American children romanticize a culture in danger of extinction, and in the early to middle decades of the 1900s, prints of children laboring in fields and factories proclaim the unjust burdens inflicted on innocent youth.

These pictures, selected from among thousands of images in the Prints and Photographs Collections of the Library of Congress, capture the experience of childhood as it is connected across time, different cultures, and diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Whether encumbered by poverty or born into privilege, boys and girls look unflinchingly at the lens and toward the future. Their honest gazes reveal who these children are and how they view themselves and their world—with implications of the vast roads that lie ahead.

This exhibition launches a book entitled, When They Were Young: A Photographic Retrospective of Childhood from the Library of Congress (New York: Kales Press, 2002). The quotes throughout the exhibit are from an essay in the publication, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Coles. Go to more information on the companion book.