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Lynne Tillman on Neil Drabble's portrait of adolescence to adulthood

It is hard to fathom a time before childhood, but at one time it didn’t exist — not the way it is now. The origin of the rights of children goes back centuries. The right for the young even to have rights evolved slowly — over 500 years — and is still evolving. Children have been, and in some places still are, their parents’ workhorses. In other places, children have recently sued to ‘divorce’ their parents.

One can see pictures of child laborers in, say, Lewis Hines’ photographs, and, further back, from the Victorian era. Small faces are darkened with sludge or grease, small hands do repetitive work. Today, in parts of the world, little hands are touching wires for a computer’s motherboard.

The absence of childhood is evident in court paintings — children standing next to their elders, dressed like them, tiny adults. Throughout recorded history, an eight-year-old could become an emperor working or pharaoh, following in the line of succession. Children sat on thrones, small as they were, in ceremonial costume and imbued with institutional majesty, their wills and whims daunted, guided, goaded, or denied by loyal or disloyal advisers.

UNESCO proclaimed 1979 ‘The International Year of the Child’ then, in 1989, the United Nations established the ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’. What constituted a child presented the body with a profoundly daunting question. ‘Child’ is, after all, a very temporary condition. In the West, generally, a child was a person too young, say, to work in a factory. But the age — twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen — at which it was permissible varied.

Scholars seem to agree that childhood in the West was invented during the nineteenth century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and urban living, when children worked long hours in factories. Before then, families lived on farms, out of sight of surveillance, and children could be their parents’ little workers, indentured servants until adulthood. They were not sent to school and not educated, unless parents sent their boys for a meager education — reading and writing. Girls weren’t taught even that.

Meanwhile, nineteenth-century photographers such as Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and Julia Margaret Cameron depicted idyllic images of children — beatific, cherished, innocent images. They proposed through them that childhood was sacred, when it never had been.

From the 1950s on, in the US, children and teenagers were transformed from nothing special to special creatures, ideologically if not actually. Youth was revered, celebrated, and missed by adults, some describing childhood as a magical time — nothing was demanded of them, only attending school — otherwise, they were free, and oh summer!

This freedom — perhaps only a sensation — ignored the differences in families and households, not only economically, but also culturally and socially. Whatever differences in conditions exist, the characters of the agents in charge of children are not limited by them. Cruelty doesn’t know class.

What children are capable of, and how they should be punished, is debated fiercely in the US. If a teenager murders someone, he or she might be treated as an adult, depending upon the state where the murder occurred and the degree of punitiveness in that state’s laws. Children are not supposed to be executed, but when is a child an adult committing a crime. The age for execution — fourteen, fifteen, sixteen or seventeen — varies, state by state, case by case.

The democratic technology of photography encouraged multitudes to shoot photographs, or have them taken by professionals, of their lives as they were lived. People shot their customs, rituals, themselves as youths, in old age, at picnics, on beaches, as tourists, in ceremonies such as graduations and weddings, and on and on. They kept them in albums, usually, or threw them in boxes.

In the twenty-first century, the plethora of digital photographs makes preserving them, or anything, a matter of obsolescence.

A photograph once signified a visual truth — this happened, this exists. New technologies have profoundly challenged that claim. The ‘truth’ of a photograph can be perplexing, and is always dubious as a ‘fact’. Its interpretations are always subject to a viewer’s projections into it.

Many artists and photographers, though, work with and from facts on the ground, let’s call them ‘actual, lived lives’. These artists attempt to be true to their subject matter, though ‘Truth’ is a dubious claim for any art form.

When does a boy become a man, a girl become a woman. And what constitutes a girl, boy, man, woman, in a time of unsettled ideas about gender, masculinity, and femininity. All of the variables marry assumptions, centuries of tradition, and prejudice to written and unwritten laws and codes of conduct.

Neil Drabble’s Book of Roy is a visual study, a close-up and in-depth portrait, over time, of Roy. Roy was photographed for eight years, from 1998-2005, from the ages of thirteen through twenty-one. Drabble’s photographs of him map subtle and not-so-subtle changes in Roy. One of the wonders and surprises in looking at these pictures is realizing that one is seeing changes but also not seeing them, simultaneously — that in order to see them, one needs to peer very closely, again and again, to notice the slight shifts in Roy’s appearance and growing body. Drabble is, in a sense, photographing what is imperceptible.

Roy is an American boy, his family middle class, white, presumably Christian, living outside of Boston. In those eight years, Drabble photographed Roy engaged in many activities, and also disengaged — in moments of inactivity. Drabble shoots for intimacy, getting as close to Roy, and home, as he could:

Roy with his foot in an autographed cast; watching TV on a small screen; shooting a basket; his forearm bandaged; holding a baseball mitt; sleeping, face down, face up, covered and uncovered; lying down in many positions; sulking; smiling broadly; staring straight ahead; goofing around, pretend-fighting with another boy in a backyard, near an outdoor grill; at the beach, in the ocean, in a pool; with his father in a motorboat; getting a haircut in a kitchen from his mother; playing a video game with his younger brother; standing in the snow; having his hair bleached by his mother; shaving; in a car; playing pool; standing in his cluttered bedroom holding a soccer ball; laughing, braces showing; eating breakfast with his brother; wearing a Celtics sweat shirt, a Patriots T-shirt; standing, a bookcase behind him; wearing a University of North Dakota sweat shirt; pulling a face, cat on his lap; wearing a hoodie.

Notably, Roy isn’t pictured with girls or reading a book.

Roy is doing American boy (and sometimes girl) stuff. Roy is in the act of being a pubescent, adolescent male, enacting Americanness — its rituals, preoccupations, hobbies, Americans at leisure (no one appears to be at work). Roy isn’t participating in the exceptional or extraordinary; Roy is participating in the ordinary, typical behavior of US teenagers.

Drabble’s decision to photograph the insignificant or average events in a life ironically makes Book of Roy unusual, and complicated to gloss. The photographs trap this young individual’s downtimes, his routines, the stuff of his daily life. They seem more than casual shots, they seem not to be opting for artfulness. Drabble is, instead, framing his photographs, and drawing his art or non-art art from the awkwardness Roy embodies. It makes Drabble’s pictures curious and fascinating.

William Eggleston photographed the innards of a freezer — an ordinary freezer compartment, a lowly freezer — but the picture’s formal qualities register the image as unique. Eggleston is aiming for producing art from an entity without qualities. In his photograph, a viewer sees patterns, colors in the frozen food boxes, in an overabundance of ice: it is an over-frozen formal composition. In Book of Roy, the subject/object is Roy’s artlessness.

Unlike formal portraiture, which Drabble has produced for years, he is shooting unstudied-ness, informality; but more, he is shooting pictures of a boy who is not only not posing for the camera, he is also not meant to be aware of it. Roy lets Drabble watch him, follow him, while he is being himself. But a camera is present. He may be aware of himself, but if he is posing, the pose is meant to be unposed. Roy is attempting to be who he is, to be himself, unselfconscious. This is not a simple task. Awkwardness makes for awkward pictures, showing off-guardedness. Or, picturing awkwardness is awkward.

Watching Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, a viewer sees how difficult it can be for a person to hold still for three minutes. The subject is trying to pose, to maintain one expression, but soon can’t and drops the pose, unable to keep it up — a performance of self. Being oneself, in this sense, is always a facade, and in performing oneself, Roy, it seems, is not yet himself.

Roy mugs for the camera or ignores it entirely. But through all of his acting up — hiding under a blanket, or playing — he appears unformed, nubile, inbetween, indefinite. That’s not an easy case to make: how does one know what is unformed. Is it even a category of being.

An amorphousness comes through Drabble’s focusing on Roy’s face and body: soft-seeming chest, chunky belly, round, rosy, fleshy face, which over those eight years, mutates: Roy’s muscles form, his stomach hardens, there’s a more pronounced rib cage, his face has lost its baby fat, his chin is sharp, angular. His shape is defined, or formed. By the end of the book, there’s the adult Roy.

All mammals require their mother’s or their herd’s protection, for a long time. They are children for longer than other creatures. An elephant baby needs three years, but has to be able to stand quickly after birth. A human baby is helpless for a very, very long time, and childhood keeps getting extended in the West. Kittens are blind at birth for two weeks. But a caterpillar emerges from its cocoon a butterfly, wholly formed and flying.

Looking at someone age in increments is somehow like watching a flower bloom. Or a sun set. Forgive these prosaic analogies, but seeing photographs of Roy emerge from adolescence, to an adulthood, they come to mind. And this: soon Roy will be on his own, and have to take care of himself.

That he will have to take care of himself builds poignancy into these images: Roy’s hair being cut by his mother; Roy on a boat sitting by his father; Roy shooting hoops. Roy doesn’t appear to have a care in the world, and though this can’t be true, part of what makes the pictures poignant is an apparent absence of worry, or ‘adult concerns’.

With adulthood, some ordinary stuff will come to an end, and, for each child, there comes an end to being parented. An adult child and a much older parent together in a photograph signifies another stage of life, toward an end rather than a beginning.

Neil Drabble’s sequence of portraits follows a natural progression. It moves along, and, at the end of the process, Roy looks like a man. He will keep developing, of course, a person is not a static thing, there won't be a constancy in a performance of self. Roy will be himself, and not himself, and have other selves, in different moments and with different people. But Roy won’t ever be a child again.

Text from 'Book of Roy' by Neil Drabblepublished October 2019.