In John Collier’s 1942 black-and-white photograph, two girls eat lunch in a Peñasco, New Mexico, school. The food on their enameled tin plates might be posole or possibly a thin portion of green chile stew. They sop up their food with thick slices of bread, a piece of which rests next to a chipped mug on the rough-hewn cafeteria’s patterned tablecloth — the kind you might find in your grandmother’s kitchen. One girl, who’s wearing a winter coat that has seen better days, stares into space. Next to her, a girl wearing a striped hat and a barely scuffed coat keeps her eyes on her neighbor’s plate. The food is hot but the room is obviously cold.
Peñasco, New Mexico, a grade school student eating a hot lunch is included in The Once and Future Child: A Photographic History of Childhood in New Mexico, an exhibition of 32 black-and-white prints from various archival sources, organized by Searchlight New Mexico. It opens at the Historic Santa Fe Foundation on Friday, Oct. 11.
Founded in 2018, Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting and public service journalism. Searchlight’s reports are published in newspapers and other media throughout the state and beyond, and are available to read for free at searchlightnm.org. Story topics include prison inmates serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes they committed as children; teen suicide; special-needs students in New Mexico’s public schools; and abuse in the foster-care system.
“We write primarily about child well-being in New Mexico, which is the worst by every metric in the country,” says executive editor Sara Solovitch, who collaborated on The Once and Future Child with the curators, photographer Don Usner and Searchlight co-founder William deBuys. “Our mandate has been to expose the worst problems, and then look for solutions. And then try to have some influence with the legislature and the executive branch of government — and really create change.”
The Once and Future Child reflects this mission visually through the photographic record. The exhibition is not a linear narrative but rather an attempt to show a geographically diverse range of kids as they have appeared to photographers over time. “It’s a way of assessing how things have changed and how they haven’t changed. Looking at the past is a way of looking at the future,” Usner says, explaining that children provide a lens through which to view many pressing current events, such as poverty, public health, and education.
In the exhibition’s introduction, deBuys writes, “These children burn the lens with their gaze. No matter the generation from which they come, for as long as photography has existed in New Mexico they have interrogated the adult world, asking, even pleading, ‘Will there be a place for me when I grow up? Is there a place for me now, as a child?’ ”
Usner says a recurrent theme in the photographs is visible signs of poverty, such as worn-out clothes, though he did not set out to find images that conveyed this. In many cases, no matter how outwardly destitute the children might appear, outright joy or a sense of inner resilience radiates from their faces. And not every photo showcases youth who today might be referred to as underprivileged. In the exhibition’s earliest photo, Three Children, taken in 1880 by Anita Margaret Vielstich Craig, three extremely well-dressed youngsters pose in their Sunday best. They look ready to attend a church service or a fancy garden party. Their obvious economic comfort contrasts sharply with another Collier image — this one taken in 1943 in Trampas, New Mexico — of three children lying together in a bed. According to the photo’s caption, the Lopez family stuffed multiple kids onto one bed so that none of them had to sleep on the floor.
Collier’s photographs in The Once and Future Child come from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress. The collection is an extensive visual record of American life between 1935 and 1944, and thousands of the images were taken in New Mexico. Other photos in the show are from the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives in Santa Fe, other Library of Congress collections, the Albuquerque Museum, other archives, and the personal collections of individual photographers whose work is included in the show. Photographers include Jesse Nusbaum, Irving Rusinow, Anacleto “Tito” G. Apodaca, Tony O’Brien, and Dorothea Lange.
Four images are by Usner, who grew up in Chimayó, New Mexico, and has spent decades documenting different pockets of his home state. In his Three girls near Fort Wingate, New Mexico (2001), girls on the brink of adolescence pose arm in arm with their faces close to the camera. Two of them smile for Usner — one hamming it up with a candy cane sticking out of her mouth — while the girl who appears to be the youngest of the trio looks away, her face turned over her shoulder.
Usner describes the difference between a subject who is captured by the camera unaware and a subject who is aware of the camera but is not being posed by the photographer. In the latter, he says, “There’s a degree of engagement that’s at once intimate and detached. They’re not posed, but there’s a conscious sense that they are participating in this exchange. I think it’s a fine line that applies not only to children’s photography but also to portraiture.”
An example of the sometimes-fuzzy line between documentary and posed portraiture is exemplified by the inclusion of A Taos girl, three-quarter-length portrait, seated, facing front, taken in 1905 by Edward Curtis. Curtis is well-known for documenting Native Americans as a “vanishing race” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although his images of the indigenous people from New Mexico pueblos are visually stunning, they are considered controversial because Curtis often styled his subjects’ hair, dress, and environment in a way that was old-fashioned or stereotypical.
“In terms of what was going on with photography at that time, that was very prevalent,” Usner says. “People coming here liked the cute little Native American kids. They liked to present them in certain ways that made them more exotic looking.” He thinks it’s important to represent this period of photography and ethnology so that people can understand how certain romanticized ideas about Native Americans became so prevalent when the reality was and is much different. If he has the opportunity to expand the show for future exhibitions, he would like to include photographs he’s seen of New Mexico students who were removed from their homes and sent by the federal government to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.
“They would photograph them when they arrived and have them dress in very romanticized Native American dress, and then photograph them again when they graduated from the school, and they’d be dressed like white people, in suits, their hair cut. The idea was that they’d been through a positive transformation and been civilized,” Usner says, his voice hardening.
Usner often wrestles intellectually with the objective accuracy of what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment,” or the fraction of a second that the photographer chooses to capture and print for posterity — which may or may not be an accurate reflection of the subject. “It’s one of those ironies of photography. Every photograph is a lie, because you’re extracting a certain piece in a certain moment, but at the same time, every photo is revelatory of the truth. Both can be true at the same time.”
The New Mexico chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers presents a companion show, A Contemporary Look at Childhood in New Mexico, which runs concurrently with the Searchlight exhibition. Edition ONE Gallery hosts an opening reception on Oct. 19. The show contains 23 color and black-and-white images (by 19 photographers and taken over the past 20 years) that were submitted by chapter members and selected by a jury. Though the subjects in these photos do not confront the viewer with quite the same assertiveness as in the Searchlight images, the assortment covers wide swaths of the state’s geography and contains similar themes of childhood exuberance in the midst of potentially challenging circumstances. Among the photographers are Tony Bonanno, Mark Berndt, Lisa Kantor, Douglas Magnus, Gabriella Marks, Jane Phillips, Ward Russell, and Sally Thomson. The photos in the contemporary show are for sale; a portion of the proceeds benefits the Child Counseling Center and Play Therapy Institute of New Mexico.
The sense of timelessness is what connects all of the images most intimately. Without looking at titles and captions, the eras of many of the images in The Once and Future Child are identifiable only by close scrutiny of clothing and hairstyles. In China Gang in the Old Chamisal Schoolhouse, taken by Alex Harris in 1979, five teenage boys stand tough against a wall etched in graffiti. They wear bell-bottoms and their hair is shaggy. Another image, captured in 1995 by Sam Adams in Chimayó, shows three young men who appear to be around the same age as Harris’ subjects. They’re gathered in front of a wooden cross adorned with flowers, possibly a descanso (roadside memorial) for a car accident victim. Nearly two decades later, their hairstyles are shorter and slicker, but the boys’ expressions issue the same level of intensity as the teenagers did then. ◀
▼ The Once and Future Child: A Photographic History of Childhood in New Mexico
Presented by Searchlight New Mexico
Opening reception 5-7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11; through Nov. 1
El Zaguán at the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, 545 Canyon Road
Free admission; 505-983-2567, searchlightnm.org
▼ A Contemporary Look at Childhood in New Mexico
Presented by the New Mexico chapter of the American Society
of Media Photographers
Opening Reception 5-7 p.m. Oct. 19; through Oct. 31
Edition ONE Gallery, 728 Canyon Road