The cost of growing up

Last summer my residency at Bank Street Arts took me into a series of schools around Sheffield to deliver Photo Finish, an educational project that introduced over a thousand 6-11 year olds to sports photography. The project, developed in conjunction with Sheffield Children’s Festival, resulted in a series of exhibitions in venues across the city, turning a group of junior school children with little previous experience of photography into exhibited artists.

There’s a lot of baggage with ‘Children’s Art’. Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary My Kid Could Paint That tells the story of Marla Olmstead, an almost supernaturally precocious child producing abstract paintings that most involved seemed to think were way beyond her four years. Suspicions that Marla’s paintings were really made by her artist father dog the film, which becomes as much about meaning, value, and the fragile vanities of people trying to get a leg up the social ladder through the acquisition of art as it is a little girl painting pictures. My Kid Could Paint That represents something of an extreme example of the responses that can accompany art made by young children, and on a much more down to earth level, if Children’s Art isn’t being patted on the head with well-meaning condescension, there’s a tendency for it to be regarded as little more than a primitive by-product of a child’s growth and development.

I’m not sure that any of this can ever be avoided, but with Limpsfield Photography Project, Thomas Mann and I wanted to design a project that could at least put four classes of children from Limpsfield Junior School in a position to be as creative and unselfconscious as possible. Jonah Lehrer reckons that ‘there’s a cost of maturity, an unintended side-effect of being able to exert self-control that also stifles our creativity, that represses the imagination’, so junior school children are ideally placed to throw themselves into creative art projects… especially when they’re handed intuitive digital cameras and asked to photograph the very simple details, colours, patterns and shapes around them. Focusing on subject matter of this sort, we hoped, would also to some extent level the playing field, directing the viewer’s initial focus towards the photographs instead of the age of the people who took them.

Some of the results of Limpsfield Photography Project are currently on display at Bank Street Arts in an exhibition that features a selection of individual images and large-scale prints of these 4 composites:

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The children’s photographs will be in Bank Street Arts‘ atrium and Juniper Gallery until 5th May. They’ll then be exhibited for a second run from 1st- 17th June. We’re currently working with children at Sheffield Children’s Hospital on Look Again, which will be exhibiting in the hospital’s Long Gallery later this summer.

See also: also 35 small squares / Picture This

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