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Introduction, By Vince Aletti

For centuries artists invested children with an almost unbearable symbolic weight. They were invariably seen as Innocence, Purity, Simplicity, Virtue, Renewal, Hope. They werenít just angels, they were saviors. They brought light, peace, and uncomplicated joy to a troubled world. Until, that is, realism eroded the power of symbolism and the world began to concede that its children could be troubled, even brutal. Victorian cherubs became bathetic, then remorseless urchins; imps turned into brats; and by the middle of the twentieth century, the juvenile delinquent terrorized the popular imagination. The Bad Seed, that lone psychopath spawned by the reactionary paranoia of the 1950s, returned with reinforcements a decade later as the Children of the Damned. No longer an idyllic refuge, childhood was perceived as a minefield, yet another paradise lost.

Perhaps the first visual artists to register this shift were photographers. Though hardly immune to the idealizing impulse (see Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, and Wilhelm von Gloeden), photographers couldnít help but record the particulars of their young sitters. So instead of an allegorical figure or the perfect embodiment of heavenly grace, they were much more likely to produce a portrait of a very specific and often very complicated child: a dark-eyed, sad girl whoís beginning to get impatient with playing dress-up; a budding seductress already sure of her power to charm and confuse; a vivacious boy with dirty fingernails who responds to the cameraís attention like a flower to the sun. Well into the advent of modernism, children still played the usual symbolic roles for photographers, but viewers were less and less likely to see them ñ or any photographic subject, for that matter ñ as anything but touchingly human; not the child, but a child. Look, for instance, at Gertrude Kasebierís elegantly staged Blessed Art Thou Among Women. Poised at the threshold of knowledge and fulfillment, the girl at the center of this picture may be a lovely emblem of social and spiritual awakening, but sheís also a prim, nervous, painfully self-conscious little twit, only momentarily reassured by her motherís embrace.

Although the world that girl was about to inherit appears supremely comfortable, few children were as privileged, as Lewis Hine's photos of America's child labor force and, later, Walker Evans' and Dorothea Lange’s portraits of migrant families would make terribly clear. Long before World War II, there was little innocence left in the world, and little appetite for sentimental cliches. After the war, children led increasing complex and independent lives but by the mid-sixties they also enjoyed a power they’d never had before. Adult resistance was futile: adolescent taste - in music, movies, clothes, dancing, and sex - hijacked the culture. It’s no wonder that the young began to occupy photography with a new authority and gravity, and for many artists they became a prime concern.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 



Photographers as different as Helen Levitt and Rineke Dijkstra, Roger Mayne and Larry Clark, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Sally Mann, Bernard Faucon and Andrea Modica have focused on children and adolescents with remarkable sympathy and understanding. Ingar Krauss should be added to the list. Although heís only been exhibiting for a few years, the Berlin-based German photographer has produced a remarkable group of images that balance historical resonance with contemporary relevance. Krauss' young subjects, like Cameronís and Carrollís, look wise beyond their years and unaccountably somber. Even when thy confront the camera head-on, they seem to be looking inward, lost in thought. The inner lives of children have always been tantalizingly mysterious, and Krauss' sitters often appear to be guarding a secret ñ something marvelous, something awful, something grave. Krauss taps into the high drama of early adolescence ñ what he describes as "a time in between, when the body and mind are not clearly defined" ñ a time when a child imagines herself as the center of the universe one moment and is convinced life has no meaning the next.

Vulnerable, cunning, bewildered, and almost unbearably sensitive, children seesaw precariously between grandiosity and despair, carelessness and concern. Like any anxious parent, Krauss (whose own daughter has recently slipped into adolescence) observes these flickering, withheld emotions from a respectful distance but with tender solicitude. "I want to figure out an authentic moment of intensity and concentration," he wrote, while acknowledging that "in all transformations there's an element of sadness." This melancholy pervades his work, underlined here and there by an almost defiant, if theatrical, seriousness that seems uniquely Eastern European. Many of the photos were made in the tree-shaded garden of a tumbledown cottage Krauss and his wife bought near the border with Poland. Boys and girls from his daughter's circle of friends and other children from neighboring villages pose in the landscape or before patterned cloth backdrops. Although a few hold props - balloons, a fish, and Easter lily, a wooden sword - most face the lens with a simplicity that recalls August Sander, one of the few photographers Krauss (who is entirely self-taught) cites as an influence. (Among others – an idiosyncratic bunch - are Nadar, John Deakin, Paul Citroen, and Robert Hausser. Francesca Woodman and Emmet Gowin would seem to be the inspirations for Krauss' occasional flashes of magic realism.)

When he first picked up the camera, in the mid-1990s, Krauss made "portraits" (never exhibited) of buildings and sites in Berlin – a city, he notes, that was also in the process of transformation: "It was a time between two ages, exciting but even more melancholic." So in a sense he’d prepared for his portraits of adolescents by paying close attention to the shifting cityscape and seeing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



its upheavals mirrored in the physical and psychological changes his daughter and her friends were undergoing. Presumably, photographing architecture was also an exercise in restraint. Krauss didnít need to impress himself on his subjects, he just needed to learn how to step back and see them fully. His most recent pictures ñ a series of Russian juvenile prisons ñ show he learned that lesson well. Having photographed in Russian orphanages, Krauss decided that he was "especially interested in those children who already have a biography and a story to tell. They seem to be responsible in a way that is not childlike. They are all alone and in their expression there is often a deep psychological intensity, a deep longing or a deep reserve."

Getting access to juvenile prisons wasnít easy, but an acquaintance in Moscow made the right connections and Krauss was allowed to choose among the inmates, many of whom arenít criminals at all, but "social orphans," children whose families were unwilling or incapable of caring for them. "Looking at these pictures," Krauss says, "they seem always to ask: Why me? And all I can answer is that I recognized them, that I feel I know them. Not personally, of course, because I donít know their stories, but in a general way I think I know them. The boys and girls were willing to be photographed but in a shy way, and it was a very strange situation because we were never alone with them; there were always guards around. I wanted these portraits to be very clear, very reduced, because that is how life in a prison is." And the uniforms helped him to achieve the "intensity" he was after because they "reduce the person to the essential part: all the individuality is told by the faces, the gestures, by what they have inside." Asked if he told his subjects not to smile, he said not exactly, "but I asked them to concentrate. That is what I am always asking."

The results are Krauss' most unaffected an poignant photographs. He prints them himself on outdated East German photographic paper because he likes the relic-like "aura" that the material imparts, and adds a subtle gold tone to the black-and-white processing. But this technical anti-perfectionism never distracts from the matter at hand. The portraits are understated, unsentimental, and as straightforward as official documents, but they also have an extraordinary emotional weight and clarity. There are flashes of defiance, pain, incomprehension, bitter amusement, and bottomless grief here, but neither the photographer nor his subjects are pouring out their feelings, and the restraint on both sides of the camera is palpable and genuinely moving. Innocence and guilt are quite beside the point. Krauss isnít interested in symbolism, but humanity, and heís located its furiously beating heart in these photographs.