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“Secret Games: Wendy Ewald,

Collaborative Works With

Children, 1969-1999″

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art

to April 8

Wendy Ewald, the subject of a major photographic retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is no ordinary photographer. In fact, depending on your definition, she may not be a photographer at all.

With invitations from school systems and foundation grants in hand—including one MacArthur “genius” award in 1992—Ewald, 51, has sought out poor and poorly educated children and given them cheap black-and-white cameras to document the world around them. The resulting images exist on the hazy frontier between collaboration and self-expression, products of Ewald’s mixture of missionary zeal and expansive motherliness. Though the photographer’s intense concern for her students is absolutely clear, the art that springs from it—now on view in “Secret Games: Wendy Ewald, Collaborative Works With Children, 1969-1999″—is a good deal more complex.

Ewald’s decision to use photography as an tool for education and self-actualization arose almost by accident, through an epiphany that occurred when she was photographing isolated Native American communities in Newfoundland and New Brunswick, Canada. As she recalls in the exhibition catalog:

I set up an afternoon photography class for the children. Each child took a camera and a pack of film. About 15 of us walked around the reservation. I took pictures of the children and their families, working selectively and cautiously. The children, on the other hand, took pictures of everything they saw: the chief, drunk, trying to saw a board; a young couple fighting; a teapot on a windowsill; a great-aunt in her white Sunday dress sitting on the rocks by the shore. The children’s pictures were more complicated and disturbing than mine, and closer, I realized, to what their life was like.

The photos taken by children on the reservation—which in the Corcoran exhibition have been placed into large wall-mounted arrays—are indeed impressive. The teapot image, for instance, is a notable example of spatial distortion: The pot, sitting on a windowsill, fits comfortably into a row of houses across the street, and the entire image freezes into a narrow focal plane. In another piece, the anonymous young photographer gives an unblinking view of a body laid to rest in a coffin.

This series, one of a dozen included in the show, and the earliest, is among the few that benefit from a clear demarcation of Ewald’s role in their creation. According to Ewald’s description, the Native American children were truly independent actors. Later series, by contrast, were shaped by varying degrees of collaboration between Ewald and children—a fact that complicates even such basic matters as assigning authorship.

One of the reasons Ewald’s technique is so difficult to grapple with is that it differs from most previous childcentric photography. Aside from Jacques Henri Lartigue, the early-20th-century child prodigy who photographed adults, the line between adults and children has been clear throughout the history of photography: Adults took the pictures, and children sat for them. Run through the various genres of photography—family portraits, documentary images, fantasy scenes—and each of them will reveal that children were, in a very real sense, supposed to be seen and not heard.

Although some of Ewald’s work in “Secret Games” consists of relatively straightforward documentary photography, she usually takes a more unconventional approach. Often, she sets her students loose to chronicle whatever they wish. Sometimes she photographs children in poses of their own design. Other times, she discusses a topic with the youngsters and then photographs images according to their instructions. Recently, she has photographed children and then asked her subjects to deface the resulting images.

On a purely aesthetic level, the many questions raised by Ewald’s various projects are not crucial; as in most exhibitions, some of the photographs are outstanding, others good, others subpar. But the show fails to examine the thornier issues of Ewald’s approach. How specific or vague were her suggestions about what to photograph? Was Ewald, as she claims, standoffish—merely a neutral catalyst—or did she watch and prod the students, subtly influencing their artistic choices with unintentional nods, grimaces, or skeptical tones of voice? For that matter, was it Ewald or her students who chose the images that made the cut for “Secret Games”—in other words, determining what constitutes a good picture and what does not?

The benefits and drawbacks of Ewald’s collaborative approach surface most starkly in the images made from 1974 to 1982 in an impoverished corner of Appalachian Kentucky. Ewald’s students brought back not only pictures of hogs, family members, and church services, but also—on Ewald’s suggestion—inventive, fictional tableaux that came to them in their dreams.

Though many of the photographs are roughly composed even by the standards of snapshots, their combination of image and text lends some of them unexpected power. Some of the pieces are exuberant, whereas others are disturbing, such as one fantasy of an apparently dead child wedged within the nook of a tree titled I dreamt I killed my best friend, Ricky Dixon. Others are humorous and illustrate a winning un-self-consciousness. A photograph by Denise Dixon of two boys squeezed into an overstuffed chair is captioned Phillip and Jamie are creatures from outerspace in their spaceship. In another, a child imagines himself riding a “horse” that’s actually a cow.

On first glance, these photographs seem to channel the unfiltered emotions of Ewald’s students. On second glance, one can’t be so sure. Though some images were obviously made by a child standing behind the lens—or in one case, by a girl clearly holding a camera in front of her own face—others seem to have required the assistance of someone else. Most of these shutter-trippers, of course, are left invisible.

Which makes the works by Denise Dixon, a favorite student of Ewald’s, somewhat puzzling. Several of the images in the Kentucky project—including two examples of Dixon reaching for the sky and one of her dressed as Dolly Parton—seem to have been taken by someone else. Was the second person Ewald? And if so, is it just coincidence that these images feature few of the artistic rough edges displayed by other pieces in the series? Though an active collaboration with Ewald doesn’t necessarily tarnish these images, the possibility does leave lingering questions.

During the ’80s and early ’90s, Ewald took her collaborative method to Colombia, India, Mexico, and South Africa, with mixed results. Of these series, the South African one is the most powerful, perhaps because the project appears to have hewed most closely to the structure of Ewald’s initial work with the Canadian Indians.

Because the South African black children Ewald worked with had little opportunity to photograph outside the home—it was enough of a challenge just convincing the police that their cameras weren’t stolen goods, she notes—they focused instead on portraying their family members. Some depict fairly ordinary scenes from domestic life, but other images are ultragrim. In one, young boys “play” inside joylessly as one longingly pokes his head into the sunshine outside. In another, a wizened woman dressed in tattered clothes slumps on a stool in a tin-walled shack, absentmindedly dangling a long-ashed cigarette—the very epitome of an exhausted, defeated spirit. Ewald’s white students created poignant pieces, as well, especially when they photographed blacks. These images are often blurry or shot from above, diminishing the subject’s humanity.

Race also animates Ewald’s finest project: 1994-1997’s Black Self/White Self. To grapple with tensions arising from the integration of school systems in and around Durham, N.C., Ewald asked a group of black and white schoolchildren to create two identities for themselves—first in one race, then the other. Ewald then photographed the students twice, and then had them mark, scratch, and otherwise mutilate the photographs in any way they saw fit, so long as one work represented their “black self” and the other their “white self.”

On paper, this exercise sounds annoyingly tendentious. In reality, it’s not. Through a combination of enigmatic posing and creative defacement, many of the images manage to conceal the subject’s actual race, forcing the viewer to focus on the subtlest clues to fully understand the image. One boy, for instance, decided to pose with a football for his white photograph but subsequently blotted out his entire form with black ink. He then drew a thick, white, cartoonish outline of himself and added a set of angelic wings. Only by accident does his black skin emerge, through a knuckle or two he missed during the alteration.

The most memorable pair of images in the series, however, were made by Antonio Gunter. In his white image, Gunter, who is black, crouches in a fetal position, ringed claustrophobically by the following accusations: “live in Alley,” “Toreup Shoes,” “Stink,” and “homless.” By contrast, Gunter in his black image stands self-assuredly, surrounded by scribbled comments including “want to be a Doctor.” Rarely have artworks by adults punctured racial stereotypes so effectively.

Black Self/White Self succeeds, in part, because it leaves no doubt that the students’ jottings are theirs; any directorial impact Ewald may have had on the initial posing of the photograph is rendered all but irrelevant by the time the work is complete. Though Ewald orchestrated the assignment, the works stand as genuine views of the children pictured. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Ewald’s most problematic work, a video project titled Memories From the Past Centuries.

To educate students about the Holocaust, Ewald collected case studies of children who had survived it and then asked some of her students to act out scenes from the survivors’ lives. Other students play-acted as if they were Holocaust witnesses or Nazi sympathizers. Ewald captured these performances on video, then spliced them, split-screen, alongside images of the Holocaust survivors as children.

As discomfiting as its images are, however, Memories From the Past Centuries fails. Though one might be willing, for the sake of argument, to set aside some of the project’s more questionable aspects (that the students, whose ages aren’t cited, look a bit young for the material, and that having youngsters play-act as Nazis is more than a little grotesque), a very basic concern remains—namely, that the piece is fundamentally an educational exercise masquerading as art.

Even in the projects in which Ewald’s role in shaping the artworks is relatively opaque, there is little doubt that her intention is to let her students’ experiences and feelings shine through. The goal, in other words, is supposed to be open-ended. In Memories From the Past Centuries, by contrast, Ewald asked her students to imagine themselves in someone else’s predicament. It’s true that the children were asked to bring their own sensibilities to the project, but Ewald nonetheless mapped where the kids needed to go.

And that, quite simply, is not art. CP