Growing up with photography and picturing youth

by Alice Gordenker

Special To The Japan Times

You know how difficult it is to get good photos of children. They fidget. They cry. And just when you think you’ve got the perfect shot, they turn the other way. Now try to imagine how challenging it must have been for early photographers, who had to contend with exposure times of minutes rather than fractions of a second.

A new exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography not only reveals the tricks used in the first decades of photography to keep young clients still, but also explains the rapid advances in photographic technology during the 19th and early 20th centuries by focusing on that trickiest of subjects: the child.

The current show, in the museum’s third-floor gallery through Sept. 19, is the second in a three-part series on photographs of children from the museum’s collection of more than 25,000 works. Since this installment coincides with the school summer vacation, museum staff designed things to be relatively kid-friendly. Children under 12 are admitted free, and every Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. is designated as “Oshaberi Kansho Taimu,” a time when visitors can talk freely without worrying about making too much noise. The exhibition will still be more interesting to adults, but a hands-on feature at the end, and the fact that most of the photographs are of children, makes this a nice opportunity for adults to share their interest in photography with school-age children.

The first gallery provides lots to learn from, with more than 50 old photographs and more than the usual amount of explanatory text, in English as well as Japanese. Some of the most interesting panels — those with enlargements of details that reveal how children were kept still — are only in Japanese, but if you can’t read them you can still refer to them for visual clues on what to look for in the photographs.

Take, for example, a family portrait (No. 8) taken between 1840 and 1865. It’s unusual to see such a young child in an early photograph like this because the daguerreotype method required an exposure time of several minutes. An adult could make use of neck and back supports to remain immobile, but the only way to keep a child still long enough was to put an adult in the picture to hold the child still. If you look closely, you can see that the mother and father are holding the baby’s arms and legs down.

Similar techniques were used in Japan as well. In a photograph of a Japanese woman and a baby (No. 24) taken by Felice Beato, an experienced photographer who came to Japan in 1863, the baby is secured to the woman’s back with a cloth. Even so, the image is blurred because the child moved his head. For a composed photograph of the interior of a Japanese home, intended for sale to foreign tourists (No. 25), Beato used a doll rather than risk a real child who might move and spoil the shot.

The second gallery is a treasure trove of well-known images including Robert Doisneau’s famous “kiss” photograph (“Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville,” 1950), Robert Capa’s 1944 D-Day photo, and “The Walk to Paradise Garden” by William Eugene Smith. Each of these works is followed by one or more photographs of children taken by the same artist, which allows you to study how master photographers approached the subject of the child.

In addition to works by Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the exhibition includes photographs by Harold Eugene Edgerton, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology perhaps best known for capturing the corona made by a drop of milk at the moment it splashed. He used the same strobe equipment to catch his daughter Mary Lou mid-air as she was jumping rope (No. 27). There are similar juxtapositions of works by celebrated Japanese photographers including Suizan Kurokawa, Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama.

The last gallery will be the most fun for kids. It’s set up as a portrait studio so you can pose a child or friend and take pictures with your own camera. You can select different lighting options and see for yourself how dramatically lighting can change an image. And don’t miss the opportunity to compare your own 21st-century photographic equipment with the case full of cumbersome gear needed by 19th century shutterbugs to prepare a single daguerreotype photograph.

The museum is located in Yebisu Garden Place, which offers plenty of kid-friendly eating options. (My family likes to buy take-out from the food basement of the Mitsukoshi department store to eat in the shaded outdoor court on the B1 level of the complex. There are also free movies, some in English, on an outdoor screen a few nights each week during the summer. A guide to screenings, in Japanese only, is posted at gardenplace.jp/sp/starlightcinema.html.

The Art of Photographing the Child at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till Sept. 19; admission ¥500 (reduced admission for students and people 65 and older); open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu., Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information call (03) 3280-0099 or visit www.syabi.com.