‘Adolescent Girl, a Spinner in a Carolina Cotton Mill’ by Lewis Hine.

“Confronting Childhood,” on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through June 9, is a small exhibition with large impact. It can be seen in the gallery room just beyond the exhibition “Gainsborough’s Family Album,” and it continues that conversation into the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries yet also stands on its own. The works themselves, mostly photographs, though diminutive in size, have complex subject matter. Stacked salon style, the works are accompanied by extensive text panels that keep a viewer engaged.

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” These words, once spoken by Flannery O’Connor, are printed on the wall and were chosen by museum executive director James Steward, who curated “Confronting Childhood.” “I like that it implies the complexities and darkness of childhood,” he says. In these depictions of “at-risk childhood and families in problematic circumstances that can be read ambiguously,” we may come to realize that “maybe as a culture we haven’t protected our children as much as we’d like to. (Photographer) Lewis Hines shows how, 150 years after William Blake’s poetry called attention to child labor, we still haven’t solved that problem.”

I am seeing this exhibit after listening to an NPR review of the HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” in which the reviewer also makes mention of the childhood sex abuse by clergy. Children have always been among the most vulnerable members of society. This exhibit shows both the vulnerability and the strength of young people.

In Julia Margaret Cameron’s “Pray God, Bring Father Safely Home” (1812), we see two young girls in a domestic setting — one seeks succor in her mother’s lap, while the other stands before the father, looking melancholy. Cameron often staged her works, using friends, family, and servants as models. These actors contrast the comfort of being at home with loved ones with the uncertainty of going off to battle.

Nearby is a portrait of Clarence White’s family gathered around the table with books and other objects. A lamp at the center of the table illuminates their faces, like the hearth around which this family gathers. There is strength in family gatherings.

‘Children, Harlem New York 1932’ by Ruth Bernhard.

Ruth Bernhard’s “Black Madonna” shows a dark-skinned maternal figure nurturing a swaddled white-skinned child, leading the viewer to question the relationship. The photograph was made in 1944, when many affluent white people hired African Americans to care for and nurse their children. In an exhibit at Grounds For Sculpture last year the artist Joyce Scott addressed this relationship, in which the African-American children were neglected while their mothers cared for white children whose parents were often racist. In Bernhard’s depiction the Black Madonna’s hand on the child’s blond head conveys that he is both literally and figuratively in good hands.

Bernhard’s other work, “Children, Harlem New York” (1932) depicts three adorably happy faces, despite apparent poverty. One wears a vest and tie, though worn and frayed, and the tip of his tie protrudes through a hole in the vest. The boy in the middle, wearing a newsie cap, rests his chin on the shoulders of his two friends. Here childhood innocence enables these three buddies to enjoy life and their friendship, if perhaps only for the moment the shutter opened.

Mary Ellen Mark’s “Homeless Damn Family in their Car, Los Angeles, California,” also conveys a profound love. This mother, father, and two children in an old car may not have much to eat or a place to sleep, but they have each other.

‘Homeless Damn Family in their Car, Los Angeles, California’ by Mary Ellen Mark.

Children are featured often in Mark’s work, from her photo essay on runaway children in Seattle that became the basis of the Academy Award-nominated film “Streetwise,” to her book “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited,” about a 13-year-old girl working as a prostitute on the streets of Seattle. Tiny was originally featured in “Streetwise,” and Mark continued to photograph and film Tiny and her family for more than 30 years.

“I’ve always felt that children and teenagers are not children, they’re small people,” Mark (1940-2015) is quoted as saying. “I look at them as little people, and I either like them or don’t.”

“She had complicated things to say about children,” says Steward. “She’s saying that children should be taken seriously as individuals, rather than grouped in a homogenous category that can be dismissed. They are individual, distinct people that we lump together under the rubric of ‘children.’ She likes them or not, depending on who they are.

“Until the 1740s,” continues Steward, “childhood was not set as special phase of life, one didn’t understand the care they needed while forming.”

Steward’s interest in the topic goes back to his time as chief curator of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum in the mid-1990s, when he curated an exhibit and wrote the catalog for “The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood, 1730-1830.” In both he explored the visual representation of children when childhood first came to be valued as a special and distinct phase of human life through the work of artists including Gainsborough and Blake.

“At a time when society is so focused on issues of childhood — including new definitions of the family, the ubiquitously termed ‘family values,’ and child abuse — we must remind ourselves that childhood and the family have not always been as we know them,” he wrote. “Many of the attitudes we hold concerning children and their special importance and needs were inconceivable only 300 years ago. Prior to the 18th century, for example, the concept of childhood development was unheard of. Children then, while loved by their families, were viewed as little more than small, vulnerable adults.”

One of the largest images, and one of the few in color, is Tina Barney’s “Paul and Alexa,” in which a father, whose skin is darkened and hardened from sun exposure, holds to his chest a child whose tender skin has not yet been altered by the elements of living. There is tenderness in how they come together. This belongs to a family of color photographs including Katrina Lithgow’s “Sarah with Daughters Lily and Izzy,” in which we see three unclothed figures — two women and a child who, ironically, clutches a small clothed doll.

The vulnerability and innocence theme plays out in the contrasting of clothed versus unclothed figures. In Mary Berridge’s “Patricia and Dawn and Friends,” a clothed white woman sits on a chair while three unclothed multiracial children surround her. Acclaimed by Time magazine as one of the “unsung American female photographers of the past century,” and formerly on the faculty at Princeton, Berridge focuses on people who find meaning in challenging circumstances, according to the exhibition label.

Sally Mann is a master of showing children as the adults they will someday become. In “Luncheon in the Grasses,” a black car is off to the side, its doors left open as if it had just spilled its contents. In the background is a clothed figure on a picnic blanket, and front and center is a naked young girl, taking the place of the nude woman at the center of Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” which this photograph references.

Steward has been interested in Mann’s work since the mid 1990s when he curated “The Camera of Sally Mann and the Spaces of Childhood,” also at the Berkeley Art Museum. He wrote of her black-and-white photographs of children — most frequently her own children — “these photographs chronicle the growing up of the Mann children, including wet beds, insect bites, nap times, rural escapades, playacting at adulthood. Most notably the Mann children are commonly photographed nude, in rural idylls and in their beds.

“Mann’s photographs of the world her children occupy have tended to elicit largely uninformed responses about child pornography and abuse, yet they do raise serious questions about our examination of the world of children,” Steward continues. “Can a child freely give consent to be photographed, especially in vulnerable positions including nudity, when the photographer is a parent? Do these photographs unintentionally put children at greater risk given the reality of pedophilia in society? Do they unintentionally encourage a sexualized view of childhood? Does such work on any level exploit these actual children?”

Steward reminds us that Mann photographed her children because she was urged to do so as a young mother in order to pursue her art while still being a mother. To capture the Eden-like quality of her children’s lives she photographed them on her 400-acre farm deep in the woods and off the grid. They led a free, open life, of which the nudity was a part.

We often lament, today, how children spend too little time outdoors, in the wilderness. Jeff Whetstone’s “Mingo Boys with Water Snake” focuses on two shirtless boys sitting on rocks as the river rushes by. One holds a hand over his eyes as if to shield them from the sun; the other appears to hold a snake on his thigh, as if it has crawled up into his swim trunks. Whetstone, too, is a member of the visual arts faculty at Princeton, and this work shows the connection between youth, nature, and sexuality.

Steven Liebman’s “Harvard Men” is a small black and white photo of three boys smoking what may be their first cigarettes. “The idea of childhood as a previous phase of human experience in heed of nurturing and protection was a construct of 18th-century Europe,” says the label. “Artists of the 20th century have complicated early ideas of childhood by suggesting the ways in which innocence and experience coexist in childhood and adolescence, and the ways in which the future adult is to be found in the child.”

This can be seen, as well, in Danny Lyon’s “Knoxville, 1967.” One young man — maybe 17 — sits shirtless behind the wheel of a convertible, while another boy, perhaps 16, stands in front, cuddling a tiny black poppy to his chest while his eyes glance off to the side, as if he’s afraid to confront the person viewing his tenderness.

Not to be missed is the tiniest work in the show, “Wycliffe Taylor” (1863) by Lewis Carroll. A Little Lord Fauntleroy type reclines in a chair draped with a striped cloth. Carroll, most famously known as the author of “Alice in Wonderland,” was also a photographer, and children were his favorite subjects. According to the exhibition label, some have suggested that Carroll may have had inappropriate desires for children, though no evidence yet supports the claims, and his photographs were always made in the presence of a parent.

And Lewis Hine’s “Adolescent Girl, a Spinner in a Carolina Cotton Mill,” is a further reminder that childhood innocence is an adult construct. The spinner tells the photographer, “I’m not old enough to work but I do just the same.”

“Our collection is so rich in material that speaks to these themes,” says Steward, incorporating a diversity of voices and subject matter, “we could have expanded to a much larger space but didn’t have room on our calendar.”

Confronting Childhood, Princeton University Art Museum. Through Sunday, June 9. Free. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Mondays. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.

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