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Children's Literature @ NYPL

Children's Literary Salon in Retrospect: Photography on March 1, 2014

Photography has historically been rare in children's books, but it seems to be gaining in popularity. We had an interesting discussion in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building about this topic. Panelists included the following photographers: Nina Crews, Joanne Dugan, Susan Kuklin and Charles R. Smith. As it has been for over five years, the Children's Literary Salon was hosted by Betsy Bird, Youth Materials Specialist for BookOps.

Nina Crews is the daughter of picture book author Donald Crews, and they are featured in children's historian Leonard Marcus' book Side by Side: Five Picture Book Teams Go to Work. Joanne Dugan has produced short films. Susan Kuklin rode in the cars of undercover cops for photography gigs, and Charles R. Smith loves to photograph sports and write books about them.

Children's Books or Photography First?

Bird began the discussion by asking the panelists what attracted them to photography. She wanted to know if they started children's books or photography first.

Crews studied painting in college. Photography spoke to her, and she had a great time working with it. Possibilities seemed to abound with photography, and that seemed to be where her voice was. She uses a different voice when she is writing children's books.

Kuklin practiced photography before she started writing books for youth. She wanted to see things and places that she would not otherwise have access to. At one point, she rode with undercover cops and photographed, an assignment that she would not recommend due to safety concerns. The year that she started getting numerous photography jobs, it seemed like every magazine started going bankrupt, including Life, Newsweek, Look (probably due to the Internet). She was distraught, and she wondered if she would ever find work again. Luckily, she was invited to become part of Project Nim, which involved photographing a chimp who was being taught sign language. Once she got started with children's books, she has never looked back.

Dugan has a father who photographed wars. When she was 10 years old, she picked up a camera, and she has never stopped taking photos since. The birth of her son Hugo caused her to search for alphabet books. She was surprised to find that there were no alphabet books correlated with the experience of living in New York City. They would wander and her son would find an amazing A embedded in the sidewalk.  After 9/11, like all New Yorkers, she wanted to do something for the community. She decided to do something for the kids of NYC. She created an alphabet book of NYC, ABC NYC: a Book About Seeing New York City. Since no such book yet existed, it was relatively easy to get it published.

Smith joined his school yearbook staff because he needed it to fulfill an elective requirement; he became the sports photographer because he likes sports. He moved to New York City in the dead of winter. He worked as an assistant photographer, and he also took photos as a hobby. He would ask himself what he wanted to take photos of for 25 years. He wondered if any subject he came up with would continue to inspire him. Smith loves basketball, and NYC has a unique subculture which include basketball courts. He put some photos of bball into his portfolio -- black-and-white basketball photos. An art director happened to see the photos, and she said that they would be good to include in children's books. He mentioned to her that he was also an author.

Bird mentioned that each of the photos accomplishes something that illustrations could, but perhaps not as well. For example, the photos in ABC NYC give a different flavor to the book. She mentioned that Smith wrote books that have been illustrated by other people. She asked when photos are a better choice than illustration.

Illustration or Photography?

Smith said that illustrators can bring to life some things that a photographer cannot. For example, he cannot take a photograph of Muhammad Ali as a child retrospectively. Sometimes, photography is not a practical choice for the subject of a book. This is an easy delineation based on what topics he is writing about.

Dugan's experience with children's books is that they are sometimes "dumbed down." Perhaps the perception in the kid lit world is that illustration is all that kids understand. Photographs are considered to be too sophisticated for children. However, kids have a strong connection to the real world, not simply illustration. Realism is great for kids, and so is the fantasy world that illustration hints at.

Kuklin believes that it is important for kids to see themselves in books. Cultural diversity as well as diversity in body size and physical abilities is vital. The detail in photographs surpasses most illustrations. You do not quite get the same feeling from a drawing of a dancer that you get from a photograph of a real dancer.

Bird mentioned that Kuklin's photographic children's book on trains is the only one that she has seen. Kids love trains, so this befuddled her.

Kuklin stated that there is an assumption that children's books are synonymous with illustration. She knows of a picture book about babies, and they get so excited about seeing other babies.

Bird mentioned that babies love faces, yet there are only a few board books that contain photographs of real people.

Crews opined that illustrated books are wonderful with their abstraction to reinforce themes and arguments that are presented in the books. Photography's great strength is in its specificity. In terms of baby faces or NYC, kids look at more details that adults seem to gloss over.

Bird asked the panelists to discuss the history of photography in children's books. She wanted to know if there were more photographs in children's books today or in the past.

Crews mentioned that historical photographs are mostly in black-and-white, since including full-cover photography in books was expensive and difficult.

Bird said that, in the art world that includes great fine art, photography has been seen as a lesser art form. The Caldecott Medal has never gone to a full photography children's book. Knuffle Bunny, which is photography imposed on illustration, is a Caldecott Honor Book.

Why More Illustration Than Photography in Children's Books?

Dugan stated that many children's book publishers do not have much experience with photography in children's books. It has to do with their perception of what children's books should be.

Kuklin believes that there is a stereotype about photography only being involved in children's nonfiction, in black-and-white thumbnail images surrounded by text. Photographers are breaking the mold of traditional thought. She thinks that we are about to have a renaissance in this area, and that it is very exciting. One publisher sent her a request for a children's book with the words "NO PHOTOGRAPHY" in all caps. She sent a letter to the publisher stating that photography is all that she does. Eventually, that publisher stops sending her letters.

Dugan has seen a definite change in how photography and art are perceived. The auctions at Sotheby's are vastly different than what they were 20 years ago.

Smith said that some publishers understand the importance of photography. He wrote a photographic poem. Then, the publishers wanted to do it again, since the first one was successful. They want something that will sell. It is helpful if authors can shift their perspective from the viewpoint of an artist to a more business vantage point. Kids are quite visually sophisticated.

More Photography on the Horizon?

Dugan mentioned that, with the advent of technology, kids are photographing material almost as early as they start drawing. They photograph their worlds as soon as they can get hold of a device.

Bird has seen many more photography children's books this year than ever before. Some of these books are based on models. For example, a story line can be built around a wildlife picture. In the 1960's, oftentimes children's photographic books were stories about kids going through the day. In addition, there are now more teen books coming out with photographs. She believes that we will see more teen photographic books in the future.

Smith has produced dog books and books with dogs and babies, both of which see the world in black-and-white. He produced a book that was half black-and-white, and half of it had full color photography. Colleges now use it to teach point-of-view.

Bird stated that the use of digital images has grown to the point where many photographers have equal experience with that and with traditional film. She asked the panelists where they see photography progressing to in the future.

Kuklin predicted that ebooks might be able to include 3D photography. They also include video footage and links. With digital photography, people do not have to worry much about focus. Creativity of individuals could take us anywhere in the future. We are thinking about how to look at books. The combination of creativity and technique is vital. People can have as much technique as they want, but it is not worth much with a dearth of creativity.

Crews noted that photographs used to be considered novelties, but now they are much more common place. She thinks about how to communicate what she wants to express through her photographs. Lighting, focus, etc. choices inform the storytelling.

Dugan is still a photographer, but she believes that the field is moving into more of a curation role. With the advent of services like Instagram, people are sharing their photographic moments more freely and easily than ever before. Instead of being lone wolves in an enterprise, there is more of an idea of collective authorship (especially when authors correspond with fans, and fan choices and suggestions can influence future worlds by the authors). She is fascinated by the community aspect of photographic work and authorship. People need to relinquish their egos and ownership of work in deference to the group. However, the definition of photography and children's books is still ambiguous.

Smith said that the #1 question that people ask about his photography is this: "What camera did you use?" No one can ask an author that question about a great novel. They would not ask the writer what computer they used. He believes that photography may become more illustrative in the future. He has seen that Aesop's Fables are being brought to life. Kids can see the turtle winning the race. We are no longer limited; there are more creative possibilities with new technologies.

Dugan likes to contemplate the meaning of photography. She is looking forward to seeing the duck book that is set in Central Park that will be published in 2014. She is fascinated by how real photography is; it does not feel like it is manipulated.

Smith mentioned that photographing a boy and a dog together is easy. However, in the future, photographing a boy and a cat or even a boy and his bird will be more viable due to technological advances.

Crews is in favor of mixing illustration and digital technology. She does not think that it makes sense to create one definition of how photography can be used in children's books; there are several different things that it could be. In the future, mixing illustration and photography could happen more and more often.

What's Next?

Bird asked the panelists to describe their current projects.

Kuklin newest published book is Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. She is very proud of the book and the way that the photographs are integrated with the text. She is blogging about that book. She is currently updating No Choirboy: Murder, Violence and Teenagers on Death Row because the laws have changed.

Dugan is currently working on a children's book in which she will attempt innovative photography methods.

Smith is producing a basketball opera, which is one of the most interesting things that he has done. He is now an operettist. The director's son plays basketball. He is also working on novels and poetry.

At this point, Bird opened the floor for audience questions.

How to Become a Photographer for Children's Books

A member of the audience asked for tips on how to become a photographer for children's books.

Dugan said that it is all about the idea and the concept. It is important for people to perfect a 60-second sales pitch. People have to know why their work matters, and they should research what has been done and what has been successful.

Smith agreed that having an idea is great, but the execution of that idea is even more important. Everyone has ideas, but not everyone executes them well. It is important to have talent as a writer and as a photographer, by other people's perception, not simply your own.

Crews recommends pitching an idea that is fleshed out. She usually creates a dummy sketch of her proposals, she has a sense of what will happen in the story. Editors are impressed if authors can carry an idea through a story. Writers should group images that are related to one another together, not simply present disparate images.

Dugan brought in design for ABC NYC. It is good to be able to lay a proposal in front of an editor, not say a word, and have him or her understand the concept. Since editors are very busy, writers should take their ideas as far as they can go before they present them.

Kuklin is more interested in the stories that she creates. Since she is a photo journalist, she has to meet the people who will be in the story before she knows what it will be. She has a reputation in the field since she has been practicing for 30 years.

Dugan mentioned that editors feel insulted if people pitch something that has nothing to do with anything that they have ever published before. At first, the editor that she pitched ABC NYC said that the book was too specialized. She did not agree, since NYC has 8 million people. Later, the editor changed his or her mind and approached her to make a deal.

Another audience member asked if urban landscapes resonate in the photography field.

Crews stated that her career began with One Hot Summer Day. Since there are so many photographers in cities, the business is biased towards a certain type of experience.

Smith recommended taking photos that include landmarks that make cities recognizable. Taking and using photographs from natural landscapes is an area in which photography could grow.

Jeanne Lamb appreciates that photographers take photos of things that we walk by and may overlook. They cause us to look at our surroundings in a new light.

I love photos; I took over 100 pictures of the queen and kittens that I watched in 2012. I also love my photos of Scotland, Ireland and Australia. 

Upcoming Children's Literary Salons: Podcasting on Sat, April 19 at 2 p.m. Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, South Court Auditorium.


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