DeCordova Museum’s Presumed Innocence

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Mattie with Bourbon Red Turkey, Laverty Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, 2004, by Laura McPhee

Mattie with Bourbon Red Turkey, Laverty Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, 2004, by Laura McPhee

Untitled (Mimi #2), 1999, by Jocelyn Lee

Untitled (Mimi #2), 1999, by Jocelyn Lee

Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

The DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts, is one of my favorite New England art museums and always well worth a visit, if only for a stroll around the art-studded grounds. The current tour de focus photography exhibition, Presumed Innocence: Photographic Perspectives of Children, however, makes the DeCordova a must stop between now and the time the show closes on April 28.

Presumed Innocence features 114 photographs of young people from the collection of Revere, Massachusetts, periodontist Dr. Anthony Terrana and his wife, Beth, supplemented by photographs from the DeCordova’s own collection. If you’re thinking kiddie portraits, think again. Presumed Innocence features photographs of children by many of the world’s greatest photographers, past and present. In many ways, the show recapitulates the history of modern photography with a focus on how children are seen.

Among the legendary photographers represented are Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lewis Hine, and Dorothea Lange — Lange’s classic Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 being the most iconic image in the exhibition.

The most famous contemporary photographers in the show include Sally Mann and Jock Sturges, both of whom have long engendered controversy by virtue of the candor and intimacy with which they portray young people. Modern masters Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, Martin Parr, Sebastiao Salgado, and Alex Webb are also featured.

Presumed Innocence makes thoughtful use of its ambivalent theme, presenting images of children that range from the winsome and playful to the weird and disturbing.

“The 114 photographs selected for this exhibition,” writes DeCordova Museum Director of Curatorial Affairs Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, “fall loosely into the following thematic and often overlapping categories: the child alone, family relations, children and animals, the child observed, the child at play, the child at risk, rites of passage, and constructed narratives.”

The dark heart of the exhibition is on the fourth floor, where the strangeness of childhood fantasy and the horror of children as victims are presented. To me, however, the most obvious and compelling tension in the exhibition is that between the seductive timelessness of small black-and-white photographs and the overpowering immediacy of huge color prints. That a little gelatin silver print can have as much aesthetic weight as an oversize c-print is a thing to behold and contemplate.

I went looking at Presumed Innocence with an eye to New England photographic artists, and I wasn’t disappointed. The cover image of the Presumed Innocence catalogue is an ambiguous portrait of a little girl in a nightie standing stock still on a rocky seashore, by Jocelyn Lee of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and Princeton, New Jersey.

My favorite photograph in the show is a 60×40 color print of a teenage girl holding up a huge dead turkey, by Laura McPhee of Brookline, Massachusetts. McPhee’s Massachusetts College of Art colleagues Abelardo Morell and Nicholas Nixon are also well represented, making Mass Art my nominee for best supporting role by an art school.

Among the other contributing artists to whom New England can lay claim are Shelby Lee Adams, Andrea Frank, David Hilliard, and Robert Lyons from Massachusetts; Julee Holcombe from New Hampshire; Anne Hall of Rhode Island; and Andrea Modica of Vermont. Paul D’Amato now lives and works in Chicago, but he taught for many years at Maine College of Art. And Lalla Essaydi, who is represented by a quartet of her signature portraits of Muslim girls covered in calligraphy, is now in New York, but she graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and first emerged in Boston.

Presumed Innocence is accompanied and documented by a very fine 160-page, full-color catalogue ($39.95) with essays by curator Rachel Rosenfield Lafo and Barnard College art history professor Anne Higonnet. The catalogue features full-page reproductions of every work in the show but one, that being a small Cartier-Bresson photo the museum could not reproduce owing to copyright restrictions. The show is perfect; the catalogue almost so.

DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, 51 Sandy Point Road, Lincoln, MA. 781-259-8355, decordova.org


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