Posted on Thu, Jun. 30, 2011
“Seeing Through Young Eyes” at the Galleries at Moore
by John Vettese / City Paper
The Galleries at Moore are virtually vacant this early on a weekday morning, but the room feels alive with activity. The scores of photos on the walls are surrounded by writing — some framed with a neatly typed page of poetry or prose, some marked up feverishly on the images themselves.
Along one wall, there’s a series of collages with snapshots inset, bursting with bright color. In a corner: black-and-white images of Philadelphia middle school students wearing papier-mâché masks.
On view through Sept. 10, “Seeing Through Young Eyes” showcases the pilot year of Moore’s outreach program, Literacy Through Photography: The Philadelphia Project. A local offshoot of the national LTP initiative founded by artist Wendy Ewald, the program paired six city classrooms with local artists, as well as art education students from Moore.
The goal was getting students to explore themes of identity, family and community while nurturing self-expression. But even though the participating schools are in very different sections of the city, the results aren’t necessarily distinguishable from neighborhood to neighborhood. Photos snapped in Olney could have easily been taken in Overbrook; living rooms in Kensington aren’t dissimilar from those in Bustleton. Community here feels fluid, and perhaps that’s the point, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality on the ground.
This is especially true of much-maligned Kensington, so it’s appropriate that the images from fifth- and sixth-graders at William Cramp Elementary do the strongest job of crafting that distinct sense of place. They draw out their neighborhood as a home to struggle and hardship, but also warmth and compassion. Photos from Cramp are paired with essays; one student describes his home as “not a good place to be.” Another, titled Little Kids in Kensington, talks of gun violence, while the image shows a kindergartner taking aim with a plastic toy gun.
These students worry for their neighborhood, but also want to make a positive impact. One snapshot looks at a baby-faced pit bull, its head cocked curiously to the side — it’s a rescue dog, and the essay outlines utter devotion to the docile, somewhat frightened animal. Another image is visually urgent — a blurred commotion from TV news that might be a crime scene, a fire or something else altogether — but its text focuses on positive “Save the People” sentiments. Many pictures are warm shots of friends and relatives.
Images from the other schools are successful at crafting strong senses of individual identity. Students dress up like graphic novel heroes and villains, or pose with bass guitars and skateboards; one student at Nueva Esperanza Charter writes a poem about how life is like skateboarding: “it goes by fast, it grinds and flips, it makes twists and turns and there are accidents.”
C.C.A. Baldi Middle Schoolers mixed their photos into cut-and-paste collages; personalities are evident in the choice of words and letters they snipped from magazine pages. Grover Washington Jr. Middle Schoolers were asked to imagine their lives in 10 years. One aspirant actor photographed a movie poster; one photographed a collage of news stories about President Obama; one posed in a too-big-for-him uniform and wrote, “I’m 23 and a Marine.”
The most fascinating exploration of self in “Seeing Through Young Eyes” comes from a project that reduces “self” to its barest essentials. Eighth-graders at Dimner Beeber are the ones wearing those papier-mâché masks. Actually, they’re creating them, lying in repose, waiting for the plaster to dry. The photos are shot close and the masks smooth out most facial features. Individuality comes from the eyes, the contours, the crease of the lips — and the way the students respond to seeing their minimized faces. They can be playful, inspiring, vulnerable and insecure. All are excited to discover and articulate who they are.
“Seeing Through Young Eyes,” through Sept. 10, Galleries at Moore, 20th Street and Ben Franklin Parkway, 215-965-4027, moore.edu.