Vernacular photography. It’s a New Thing I Learned from reading Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler’s Girls Standing on Lawns, published by the Museum of Modern Art and set to be released in early May.
As we learn from notes in the back of the book, written by both Kalman and Handler, the two met in Bologna. (“Every meal with Maira is like a picnic,” Handler writes. This, it occurs to me, is quite possibly the highest compliment a person could receive.) And, as we learn from a note from Sarah Hermanson Meister, MoMA’s Curator of the Department of Photography, this book is the first of a series in which Kalman, Handler and the Museum will collaborate. The series, Meister writes, will continue to use photographs from the collection as inspiration. This book’s theme? Vintage photographs of women and girls standing on lawns.
If you’re a woman reading this, are you now counting in your head how many photographs exist of you, standing in the grass? It’s just a thing that happens. Next to one vintage photograph of a woman smiling next to a flowering bush, Handler writes: “Her sister asked her, maybe. I am making things up. A brother, a sweetheart. He told her how pretty she looks there on the lawn. He’s not in the picture now.”
In this slim, 64-page volume, lovingly designed (a cloth cover, I tell you!), readers are given a collection of anonymous snapshots that come from MoMA’s collection—with some thoughts from Handler, spare and evocative. (The words are, that is. Not necessarily Handler, though he could be. We’ve never met.) The Kirkus review describes the text as Handler’s “prose poem.” Interspersed among the snapshots—many a couple of decades after the turn of the 20th century—are paintings from Kalman, evidently inspired by other anonymous photos.
And in that final note, where Meister talks about this collaboration, she notes that MoMA possesses over 25,000 photos in their collection. Many are by professionals and range from the 1840s to present day, but many more were taken by amateurs with no training in photography. This, she explains, is called vernacular photography. And that is what this book brings us, along with Kalman’s playful, exquisite paintings.
But so much more, too. I have to admit: There comes a point, when trying to describe books like this, when you don’t want to delve into deep analysis. Even though I write about books for a living, I loathe the idea of doing that here. It would beat the ever-lovin’ life out of this book to do so. You know when you’ve read a poem that insta-haunts you and you just have to think about it a while before talking about it? This book is like that. It’s a conversation-starter—and, speaking practically as a school librarian by training, it’d be a splendid writing prompt for all ages. It’s what a friend of mine calls a crunchy book. You read, you put it down, and you think a while. Too much discussion guts it.
Many photos stand on their own, but more of them are accompanied by Handler’s words. In this day of rampant social media and photo-sharing, I got chills to read next to old photos of children: “We are all gone from here. None of this is there, not anymore. And yet we are still standing.” Earlier he writes, speaking directly to the one photographed, that there will come a time when it’ll be hard to believe that was you standing on that lawn. Remember this, he nudges. It may be difficult to recall later.
It’s pages of riddles, the best kinds of riddles. And that’s as much as you’ll get out of me in the way of review-speak.
But it does inspire me to share my own lawn photos. Ready? I have three. First, it’s me at age 3. Second, it’s my mother, just shy of 13-years-old. Lastly, my maternal grandmother, perhaps around age 20. It is not known. I’ll attempt to put some thoughts to them, though I’m no Handler.
Keep trying to stand in the sunshine. It’s generally a good place to be.
Her feet are firmly planted, but she’s ready to bust out. Her compass points South.
It wasn’t her idea to have this photo taken. She’s beautiful but thinks otherwise.
Photographs courtesy of Julie Danielson.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.