Youthful curators present a younger world in 'Just Kids'

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Lewis Hine’s photographs of children working in the early 20th century.
Lewis Hine’s photographs of children working in the early 20th century helped change child labor law in the United States. This untitled print from 1913 is one of several Hine images in the Minneapolis Institute of Art collection which are displayed in “Just Kids.”
Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art

Children have always been popular photographic subjects, but they’re less often in control behind the lens. A new show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, called "Just Kids," has almost 200 images and other objects, displayed with the help of a team of young curators.

When Casey Riley became the curator of photography and new media at the Minneapolis Institute of Art a couple of years ago, she discovered among other things a large collection Lewis Hine's pictures of child laborers shot in the early 20th century.

As a curator, Riley knew of their importance in changing child labor law. But as a parent, she found the images of children in factories, in fields and other jobs very moving. Then she considered her 11-year-old son.

"And I thought, ‘What would my son think about these? Would he have the same response? Would he find meaning in them, not knowing what I know?,’” she said.

“And then it went from there, and I thought, ‘What would it be like to talk about these photographs with kids, and kids from the community? Would they have the same response? What would they say?’"

So, she selected all kinds of pictures of children from the collection. She also put the word out that she needed the help of some local school students to build an exhibit. Eleven ended up working on the project.

The young curators met with museum staff, and helped design the show's look.

Four people stand in front of a wall with a word "kids" on.
From left: Just Kids co-curators Elise Legler and Aliyya Mahmoud, Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Casey Riley and Carmen Soth, whose pictures are displayed in the show.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"Well, we all wanted really bright colors," said Elise Legler, a freshman at Roosevelt High School. "That was a thing."

"No pink!" insisted Aliyya Mahmoud, another Roosevelt freshman.

"Except there is pink now," laughed Legler. "But it's OK."

The student curators asked for seats for older visitors and requested that the staff hang the pictures lower than usual, so their younger viewers could get a better look when they visited.

They also began writing label texts for the images. Some are by the world's great photographers such as Hine and Walker Evans. Others are snapshots gathered by vernacular collector Peter J. Cohen, who scours antique shops looking for examples.

"He buys ravenously, so there are all kinds of photographs," said Riley.

The people in the snaps are unidentified, but Legler formed an immediate emotional attachment to a picture of a little boy in a cowboy hat waving a toy gun.

"It reminded me a lot of my dad and all the stories that he tells me about his childhood," she said. "And that's how I imagine him looking like when he was about the age of that little boy."

For her part, Mahmoud went for image composition. She pointed out a portrait by photographer Dawoud Bey of a girl called Sunshine standing beside another young person.

"The darkness of the image, kind of hiding the person in there so you can really focus on the one," she said.

One of the photographers in the show is local and young. In the gallery, Carmen Soth, the 17-year-old daughter of renowned photographer Alec Soth, mentioned another kind of perspective evident in her work. She took the nine photographs in the show a decade ago

"I like that from a 7-year-old, everything is angled up. Which I think says everything about how kids see some stuff," she said.

Soth's pictures are of Brighton in England. They include street scenes, a remarkable portrait of a stern-looking man in a coffee shop and a picture of Carmen's favorite red sparkly shoes. Soth traveled to Brighton with her father, who originally went to do a project of his own.

"But when we got there, his visa was declined. And so, he kind of came up with the idea that I take the photos instead," she said.

A pair of ruby red shoes.
One of Carmen Soth’s images, made when she was 7 years old, which became part of the Brighton Picture Hunt series, displayed as part of “Just Kids” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art

The resulting images were published in a book titled "Brighton Picture Hunt."

“Just Kids” also features Boston-based photographer Rania Matar’s portraits of Samira, a young Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. The pictures, taken over a number of years in the camp, show her moving from girlhood to becoming a young woman.

“I think it’s important to have a series that also speaks to the progression from early childhood into young adulthood,” said Riley.

Riley said while she gathered the original selection of images, the young curators were free to reject and replace pictures. She worried about one Walker Evan’s image of a child’s grave during the depression. However, one of the curators Lucy Cawthra, an eighth grader at Anoka Middle School, responded that kids die, so the image belonged in the show.

Riley said Cawthra then composed the text label for the picture. It reads: “Grief is extremely human, part of what makes humans unbelievably complex.”

“That’s just incredibly wise and insightful,” Riley said.

The young curators hope "Just Kids" will help visitors appreciate younger worldviews. Grown-up curator Riley said it's important for arts institutions to remember that young people are their futures.

"And if we can be more transparent and welcoming about the ways that we do things, the chances of them enjoying these spaces and finding meaning in them increases,” Riley said.