The fairy beam upon you,
The stars to glister on you,
A moon of light
In the noon of night,
Till the firedrake hath o'er-gone you.
The wheel of fortune guide you,
The boy with the bow beside you
Run aye in the way
Till the bird of day
And the luckier lot betide you.
-- by Ben Jonson
Children, especially young children, are notoriously difficult to photograph well, quite aside from the difficulties involved in getting them to hold still and pose. It takes a certain gift to capture a child's unguarded emotion or artless movement, but it is just this sense of fearless self-expression about children that can arouse strong responses from viewers. Anne Geddes has the gift. She's one of the most well-known children's photographers of our day, and for good reason. Her photographs reveal the innocence of her subjects with an archetypical clarity.
However, those of us who spend time watching children in their own worlds often find Geddes' work one-dimensional. Children can be innocent, certainly, and that sweet innocence can melt our hearts. But children are so much more than innocent. In their unregulated moments they are lawless and wild, or else absorbed with incomprehensible rules and ritual; one moment tender, the next cruel; joyfully serious; manically merry. When I look at the photographs in A Fairy's Child, I find that Ann Dahlgren and Douglas Foulke have seen these moments of ferociously pure "presence." More than that, they have the gift to catch and isolate such moments in powerfully evocative pictures.
The photographs here are black and white. Dahlgren and Foulke play with exposure, focus and development to sharpen some lines and blur others. At times their subjects appear as phantom shadows against their backgrounds, reminiscent of the "real fairy" photographs of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At other times, the grandeur or intricate delicacy of the natural settings is as moving as in photographs by Ansel Adams, and the children are placed as indistinguishable elements of the forest. Some of them possess a strong sense of movement, while others are deeply still.
Of course, as the title of the book states, these are also photos of children as fairies. There is a broad spectrum of vision regarding fairies, fairy land, and the fey. Some artists, like Cecile Barker, focus on the diminutive, the dainty, and the cute. Others, like Brian Froud (sometimes), try to capture the danger and alienness of the fey realm. Dahlgren and Foulke give their subjects pointed ears (the prosthetics are exquisitely detailed and expertly applied), touches of face paint, simple loose frocks reminiscent of leaves and petals, and translucent dragonfly wings or the gorgeously patterned spans of butterflies. With these few touches, they masterfully combine the feral, playful aspects associated with fairies with the absolute presence and immediacy of their child subjects to crystallize an almost alarming sort of joy.
If this were a book of photographs alone, without a word of text, it would be a wonderful and powerful work of art. However, the artists take things one step further. They intersperse their photographs with poetry about fairies. The poems they have chosen are all from the same evocative realm as their images. By poets as diverse as Jane Taylor, Robert Graves, Ben Jonson (quoted above), and Edgar Allen Poe, the poems are variously romantic, eerie, sweet and nonsensical. Juxtaposed with Dahlgren and Foulke's images, they add another, subtle layer to the intense mood of the work.
A Fairy's Child is one of those books that is almost impossible to categorize. Pre-literate children will love looking at the pictures and having the poems read to them. People of any age who are drawn to things fey will find themselves returning to leaf through the pages again and again. Collectors of art photography will appreciate the virtuosity of the work displayed here. On the one hand, I want to cut the pages loose and put them on my walls, to live surrounded by the images. On the other hand, bound together with the poems, they make a larger compelling statement that would ooze its potency if fragmented.
You must give A Fairy's Child to someone who will treasure it, even if that person is yourself.
You can see an example of Ann Dahlgren and Douglas Foulkes' work here.