When Krista Steinke became a mother, she joined an ancient line of parents who have examined the myths versus the realities of understanding and raising children. As she revisited Mother Goose and Grimm’s fairy tales, she became fascinated with the roles that these stories play in the behavior and development of children. As child psychologist and writer Bruno Bettelheim and others have suggested, un-bowdlerized fairy tales, which are quite violent in their original forms, can function on levels that run deeper and more productively into a child’s developing consciousness than the sanitized versions that most modern readers and filmgoers are familiar with.
In the series ‘Backyards, BB Guns, and Nursery Rhymes’, Steinke returns to memories of her own childhood, and particularly, as she said in a recent interview, to her “most vivid memories” of those times when she was far from a “perfect angel.” These photographs focus on seemingly everyday events when children are playing, hanging out, or just killing time. Steinke’s children are secure in themselves and completely occupied with the moment, playing with the absence of self-awareness that is the special privilege of the young. For them, play is its own justification, but to the viewer these scenarios carry various degrees of narrative possibility and ambiguity, especially when we imagine the contexts through the eyes of a child. In ‘she scolded them, washed them, and hung them out to dry’, a girl plays mommy to her dirty dolls. What did they do to deserve this sudsy fate? How many mud puddles did they swim across before she hurled them into the washing machine? In ‘the apples grew ripe and fell far from the tree’, how did all those apples get on the porch? What is that kid doing with a big boy hammer? And who is going to clean up the applesauce? More subtle ambiguity is at work in ‘the better to see you with’, she said, as Little Red Riding Hood stares away from her target and vaguely toward us, the look in her eyes not wholly reassuring about where she plans on aiming next.
These are hardly the wild children who fueled the flames of Puritanical childrearing, but they are not quite cherubs, either. The camera catches them in oddly inflected moments when they are oblivious to everything and everyone else around them. They are reminiscent of some of Cindy Sherman’s early ‘Untitled Film Series’ characters, caught up in private moments, balanced between a mundane something and an ambiguous something else. They become enlarged in the viewer’s mind because they don’t know that they are in the midst of a balancing act. This curious stature may arise from how adult viewers see through the lens of experience the child’s fragile, inevitable passage from innocence. The gentle irony that emerges was known to William Blake, along with a host of others who followed.
The look of Steinke’s photographs also contributes to narrative openness, itself such an important element of real play. The vignetted edges suggest the frames of 8mm film and old home movies, as well as the soft periphery of human vision, the ocular field that lies beyond the two degrees or so of centered sharp focus. In some of these pictures the children pay little mind to others who hover in soft focus along the edges or in the background. In ‘the sheep were in the meadow’ an older sibling and a child sit in the background, looking on casually as two kids play on the swings. In ‘the apples grew ripe and fell far from the tree’, a vague half-figure stands off to one side, watching passively as the boy wields his terrible swift sword. These are not trolls hiding under bridges, or wolves in sheep’s clothing, or avenging birds waiting to peck out the eyes of Cinderella’s sisters. But these subliminal figures enrich the narrative possibilities, while also, perhaps, referencing the haunting figures who sometimes hover at the barely discernable edges of dreams.
Steinke’s delicate colors evoke hazy memories of bygone backyards. The sky was cobalt, the drone of insects constant, and adults were out of sight and out of mind. I can almost claim as my own the kiss of sunshine on unmottled skin as the girl hangs her dolls up to dry in ‘she scolded them, washed them, and hung them out to dry’. In moments of engrossed timelessness, we were free to be dangerous, but sweetness recollected in tranquility carries bite. Shimmering colors pull at memories glimpsed through a softened, bittersweet lens.
These kids know the world through unknowing eyes, and act upon it with young, untested bodies. Balanced on the edge of propriety and vulnerability, they reenact Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm, and innumerable fables from other cultural traditions. In the process, these girls and boys of American suburbia merge with the enduring archetypes of childhood.
David L. Jacobs (c) 2009 Light Work Annual
Krista Steinke is a Philadelphia-based artist who teaches photography and digital media at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. She participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program in July 2008. Her work can be viewed at http://www.kristasteinke.com/.
David L. Jacobs is a professor of art history and photography/digital media at University of Houston, TX. This essay is dedicated to Maxwell Staples, his first grandchild.