© Céline Brunko

Exhibitions of the Photo Library: Children’s books featuring photography

10 February to 21 May

A new series of


The "Passage" is our accompanying exhibition format in the corridor of the Swiss Foundation for Photography. On 25 metres of wall, the Fotozentrum periodically shines spotlights on historical and contemporary positions of photography. Our current series is dedicated to the photo book.

In everyday speech, children’s books are often referred to as picture books, and both terms are used interchangeably. It is assumed that books containing pictures are intended for children and that books comprising text are produced for adults. But of course, photo books are also picture books, even though they are however mostly aimed at adults. This is therefore a good example of how this analogy falls short.

In 1930, Mary Steichen Calderone published The First Picture Book. Everyday Things for Babies. 24 photographs by her father Edward Steichen depict everyday objects from a baby’s world: a teddy bear, a hairbrush, a milk mug. Over the next 20 years, the number of photo books for children remained modest. One of the reasons for this was a reluctance to use photography in children’s books. Photographic images’ closeness to reality compared to drawings or other manual illustration techniques was regarded as being detrimental to the development of children’s imagination.

But from the 1950s, the production of children’s books containing photography increased. In Lausanne, for example, the Guilde de Livre, founded in 1936 and the French language equivalent of Germany’s Büchergilde Gutenberg (Gutenberg Book Guild), published a series of titles all illustrated by photographers. However, in the 1980s, interest declined once more, and today only a few new titles are published. At the same time, older titles such as Mein Esel Benjamin (My Donkey Benjamin), from 1968, have long since become classics.

The ratio of images to text in children’s books featuring photography differs greatly. Some titles, such as Børnenes Billedbog (Children’s Picture Book) by Jesper Hørn and Sven Grønløkke or Franz & René by Franz Hohler and Eduard Widmer were published completely without text. They function as chronological picture stories or as sequences of pictures full of suspense but without linear narration. In others, the photographs illustrate a story told in text form in the traditional manner, and are sometimes based on feature films. There are also schoolbooks that help, in a playful manner, with learning to count or recognising shapes. Others are intended to prepare for the birth of a brother or sister, or help parents explain the facts of life to their offspring. 

Dolls are often set in scene and photographed, as in the case of Amadou by Alexis Peity and Suzi Pilet, or later, Baski by Heinrich Gohl and Martin Hächler. However, by far the most important topic and motif for children’s books containing photography is that of animals. Stories about young animals who experience adventures, children who befriend animals, or glimpses into the animal world with the educational aim of arousing an interest in nature in children. «Klick!», sagte die Kamera (‘Click!’ Said the Camera) by Balthasar Burkhard is worth a special mention here, as it turns the act of photographing animals into the actual topic of the book.

As well as items held by the photo library, the basis for this current exhibition in the Passage is the children’s book collection of Luca Beeler, Cédric Eisenring and Carmen Tobler from Zurich. Drawing on their collection of around 300 children’s books from the postwar era, in the central display cabinet we will be exhibiting a selection of those titles in which photography played an important role.

Curated by Matthias Gabi, Head of Fotobibliothek.

To the Photo Library catalogue.