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An intimate look at childhood

“I’m really glad I didn’t have children,” acclaimed photographer Nan Goldin said at a public event earlier this year. “I believe in children and I love them, but I think there’s enough children in the world.”

That comment might seem surprising, even odd, considering that Goldin’s new book, “Eden and After” features approximately 300 images of children from over four decades.

If Goldin won’t stop looking at and photographing kids, she’s not alone. From the 19th century’s first snap shooters to today’s smartphone chroniclers, parents have compulsively documented the early lives of children and their every move. So have artists and art photographers.

Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” made strangely languorous portraits of his young neighbor, Alice Liddell, in the late 1850s. A decade later, Julia Margaret Cameron began photographing her own children and those of others, dressing them up as angels and alternate incarnations of innocence.

Early in the 20th century, the sociologist Lewis Hine took a less optimistic and tougher look at childhood in photographs that reported on the ills of child labor. Decades later, a different sort of attention was drawn to the more pensive images Sally Mann made of her own children, suggesting their nascent sexuality in ways that, unsettling to some, became career-making.

"People think I love children, but I don't. Not more than the next person," said Helen Levitt, a street photographer celebrated for her images of kids, in a 2001 interview. “It was just,” she explained, “that children were out in the street."

And in Goldin’s case, as she moved through various relationships and cities making the intimate, gorgeous and sometimes grungy images she has become known for, more and more kids crossed her path. In an essay in “Eden and After,” Guido Costa describes how Goldin refers to children as aliens who possess “a unique wisdom and second sight,” two attributes that could also apply to Goldin.

In “Eden and After,” Goldin tracks her subjects, some in more depth than others, from infancy through early adolescence. We see children breast-feeding, sleeping and playing. We see them alone and with others. We see them naked, clothed and costumed as witches, soldiers, princesses, pumpkins and kickboxers. Some seem oblivious to the camera.  Others look into its lens with curiosity or what seems like a startlingly precocious knowingness.

Goldin, true to form, captures situations that are far from what, in the days of analog photography, were called Kodak moments. Boredom, sadness, bashfulness, introversion, exhaustion, and confusion are all depicted, and in images whose formal and lyrical qualities drawn from Goldin’s signature aesthetic arsenal, helps them float above the mawkishness you nervously expect to encounter with every page turn but thankfully never do.

Goldin’s photographs, as ever, verge on the cinematic. Waves of emotion, movement, color and light wash over and through them. References to the oppressiveness of gender roles and socially conditioned behaviors are also there for the reading.

What is most interesting, however, about this project is how what we’ve been conditioned to expect from Goldin is balanced by what takes us by surprise. Instead of operatic photo-narratives that pit euphoria against disappointment and tell tales of loss and endurance, we get something sweeter, more appreciative, and wistful. The photographer — who in her encyclopedic and career-defining slideshow, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,”so boldly redefined what family might be — looks lovingly and repeatedly here at children who are not her own.

Those familiar with Goldin’s previous work will sense the basic friction that is embedded in these pictures. She has always been so uncompromisingly invested in the tracking of complicated lives that it's hard to look at the children depicted in “Eden and After” and not wonder what has been seeded in or fated for them and which “after” they are headed for.

If photographs of children have traditionally tended toward the idyllic, that optimism is harder to pull off today. We have become all too familiar with portraits of kids who have been abducted, abused, abandoned and slaughtered to buy into photographic fictions about childhood and innocence. And that is what makes this book, with its mix of beauty, appreciation and apprehension, an unexpected page-turner.

- Marvin Heiferman, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Marvin Heiferman, an independent curator and writer, organizes projects about photography and visual culture for various institutions, and he has written for numerous publications. New entries to Heiferman’s Twitter-based project, WHY WE LOOK (@whywelook) are posted daily.