Literary critics, in their literary-critical way, have a useful, if unflattering, term to describe an author’s early work: juvenilia. By its very nature, juvenilia is, yes, juvenile. Writers take time to develop. What matters isn’t what they’re writing about so much as how they write about it. The important thing is their sensibility, and sensibilities take time to emerge.
That’s true of a photographer’s sensibility, too. But it’s in the nature of the medium — with its far more direct relationship to the external world — that photographic juvenilia can have appreciably greater aesthetic appeal than the literary kind does.
Photographic juvenilia is the subject of “Early Works,” which runs at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University through March 15. The show was organized by Laura Moya and Laura Valenti, of Photolucida, in Portland, Ore.
None of the photographs are necessarily great. But precisely because the balance between external world and internal response to that world is much less disproportionate in photography than it is in literature, all are engaging — and sometimes well beyond that. The viewer can all but feel these budding photographers’ sense of discovery. There is enormous charm in being able to peek in on youthful wonder and excitement.
Some of the images do have an extrinsic interest. Douglas Beasley offers a glimpse of the Unisphere, at the 1964 World’s Fair. As a teen, Lewis Koch photographed Martin Luther King Jr. addressing a rally. Say hey! There’s Willie Mays before a game at Candlestick Park, in 1960. Michael Jang, the photographer, could presumably be speaking for all his fellows in the show when he writes, “I remember that I preferred taking pictures to getting autographs.” He also speaks to the beginner’s experience in another way: “And, yes, that is a finger smudge on the lens.”
Three or four autobiographical paragraphs accompany each of the 34 photographs in “Early Works.” There are another 11 images, from local photographers, in a slide show. Among them are Jo Sandman, Dennis Stein, and former PRC curator Leslie K. Brown.
The earliest image in the show dates to 1951, the latest to 2002. About a third are in color. All have thick white borders, like snapshots in a family album. There is the voyeuristic attraction of looking over other people’s families, at other people’s lives — except that is it voyeurism when the looking is encouraged and the feeling so informal?
As one might expect, most of the photographs are mundanely personal. They show the stuff of childhood and early adolescence: birthday parties, fishing trips, the beach, parents, pets, stuffed animals, summer camp, siblings, playground equipment, bicycles. Understandably, these photographers have yet to put childish things behind them. As St. Paul might have said (assuming St. Paul had access to an Instamatic or SX-70), when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child — I photographed as a child.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Frederick Sharpe took “Genesis, 1956” when he was 7. Yet his sister’s being slightly out of focus, her extended hand’s pushing against the picture plane, the frame cropping her pinkie, the Diane Arbus-like presence of a bewildered toddler in the background: The artlessness adds up to seeming sophistication.
Or there’s Jaime Permuth, at 10, capturing in mid-stride an umbrella-bearing boy as he runs through the rain. It recalls Cartier-Bresson’s famous image of a man leaping a puddle — or, better yet, any number of early images by Jacques Henri Lartigue. With all due respect to Paul, it’s Lartigue who is the patron saint of young photographers. His juvenilia are more than a match for the mature work of all but a relative handful of photographers. Youth may be wasted on the young, but not talent.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.