In hon­or of Anne Franks birth­day this week, Jew­ish Book Coun­cil Intern Nat Bern­stein shares her essay Pho­tog­ra­phy and Remem­brance.” Nat is a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

I hold before me two pic­tures of school­child­ren tak­en with­in twen­ty years of each oth­er, black and white. The first is a wide shot of a wood­en school­house with its doors flung open, out of which pours a posed assem­bly of teach­ers, sur­round­ed by rows upon rows of young chil­dren — the stu­dents. The sec­ond is of a sin­gle girl smil­ing com­fort­ably from behind her desk, a pen poised in her hand atop an open book. 

Cour­tesy of the Tar­row Family

Aside from the ages of their juve­nile sub­jects and the scholas­tic set­ting, these two pic­tures do not seem to have much in com­mon. Indeed, the dif­fer­ences between the images not only increase the more one exam­ines them but deep­en as soon as the sim­i­lar­i­ties they share are dis­cov­ered. The school uni­form worn by the lone girl at her desk, for exam­ple, match­es that of the girls stand­ing out­side the school­house: a white col­lar jut­ting out of a dark sweater, a dark skirt — even the hair­styles of most of the clus­tered school­girls are in a sim­i­lar fash­ion to hers. But once one focus­es on this com­mon­al­i­ty between the girls, the dif­fer­ences become immea­sur­ably stark­er. One sud­den­ly notices the bare legs sprawled on the ground in con­trast to the stock­ings plant­ed firm­ly under the desk, the prim­i­tive struc­ture of the wood­en school­house in com­par­i­son to the immac­u­late angles of urban moder­ni­ty in the girl’s classroom.

The very for­mat of the two depic­tions — group pic­ture ver­sus indi­vid­ual por­trait — increas­es in sig­nif­i­cance and dis­tinc­tion upon a clos­er com­par­a­tive read­ing of the images. While the pic­ture of the class­room dis­plays its impres­sive design and assets, the sub­ject of the image is the girl cen­tered with­in it. She appears as though intend­ed to seem caught in a semi-can­did moment, yet her order­ly com­po­sure and the posi­tion­ing of her desk in that strange cor­ner of the room sug­gest that the por­trait is staged. The pho­to­graph of the group out­side the school­house, by con­trast, has the reverse effect: the orga­nized rows of stu­dents swerve and stag­ger out of their intend­ed lin­ear grid, pos­tures and pos­es vary, here and there a child looks away from the cam­era — the pic­ture trans­forms from a staged assem­bly into a semi-can­did group por­trait. The sub­ject of this pho­to­graph is not any of the indi­vid­ual stu­dents in the crowd but rather the crowd itself togeth­er with the build­ing behind it: it is a pic­ture of the school as a whole, of the insti­tu­tion. This lat­ter pic­ture was clear­ly intend­ed as a civic doc­u­ment, a pub­lic image; the for­mer to be kept in the pri­va­cy of the home.

And yet, the pic­ture of the school­house assem­bly is a pri­vate pho­to­graph, and the girl sit­ting at her desk is a pub­lic image. Con­tin­ue read­ing here.

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.