When We Were Young: Photographs of Childhood

In many ways, it could be argued that children are the perfect photography subject. They possess a genuine lack of self-consciousness that is so uncommon in the adult subject. Photographs of them feel like a revelation. We feel that we can see the true reality of these small subjects because of the unmitigated emotion they give to the camera; something that is so uniquely compelling. This sense of freedom and free expression – ultimately, the essence of what it is to be a child – is where When We Were Young, the newly opened exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait gallery, finds its strength.

The photographs, all taken from the National Gallery of Scotland’s permanent collection, span everything from 1840s daguerreotypes to digital prints from 2017. This vast chronology is taken on wholeheartedly, which does leave the small gallery space crammed with work in a way that can feel a little overwhelming.

That being said, the historical breadth of the exhibition gives an interesting insight into the way notions of childhood have changed. Looking at the stiffly posed and immaculately dressed children of the 19th century photographs now, it’s hard to even identify them as children, and the collection of daguerreotypes they have on display possess an uncomfortable, ghostly quality which feels inherently at odds with contemporary notions of childhood. These severe – and, I must say, slightly creepy – images serve a striking contrast to the 20th and 21st century photography that make up the majority of the exhibition.

One of the first photographs on show upon entering the exhibition is Wendy McMurdo’s photograph ‘Girl With Bears’, the epitome of the childish innocence and curiosity. Similarly, a selection of work by Margaret Mitchell taken from her 1994 series, ‘Family’, showcases the world in which children exist and interact. These contemporary images return to the notion of childish freedom, and reveal a sense of simplicity that is inherent to children’s lives – in their actions, their relationships and their outlook on the world.

Overall, When We Were Young takes a touching and sentimental look at youth and childhood, it celebrates the freedom of childish expression and simplicity of children’s’ lives which is so often over-complicated by the adult world around them. The show is heartwarming and nostalgic and, whilst there are no grand narratives or big-issues, perhaps there don’t need to be. When We Were Young does exactly what it sets out to – it surveys almost 200 years of photography of children, and shows that whilst our portrayal and experience of childhood may have changed over the years, children themselves are a constant. It certainly left me yearning for the simpler days of my youth.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery 

Until 13 May 2018 

Photo Credit: Dun_Deagh via Flickr

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