The City of Children by Monika Merva
Kehrer Verlag, 2010
Review by Colin Edgington
Since 2002 Monika Merva, a first generation American of Hungarian descent, has photographed at a Gyermekkozpont or “children’s village” in the town of Fót, Hungary, approximately twelve miles northeast of Budapest. Her monograph, The City of Children, a name by which the Károlyi Istvan Gyermekkozpont is known, is a collection of these photographs taken through 2009.
Throughout the monograph, the viewer is left to construct a sense of the place through portraits of residents and through small details such as white curtains adorned with fake flowers, the leaves and trunk of an artificial tree, and a pair of tan corduroy pants folded on a Pinocchio upholstered office chair. These photographs, juxtaposed throughout the book, provide a sense of home that hints towards the connections the children have made here and the effect the place has had on their lives.
The absence of the sort of “place-locating” photographs (signs, external building shots, etc.) that one might expect to see in a body of work such as this frees it from the specificity of the City of Children’s history and politics, while retaining the fact that many of its residents have had difficult lives and have come here from dysfunctional or impoverished families. Although different in circumstance, many of these images invoke the legacy of Lewis Hine, whose early 20th century photographs of working children in the United States were essential to the passing of child labor laws. For example, there is a sense of Hine’s Young Russian Jewess in Merva’s photograph of Eva P, both of whom, in their gazes, appear aged beyond their years.
The photographs are at times poetic and at others banal or everyday. They provide the reader access into the lives of these children, presenting moments of normalcy and happiness as seen in the photograph “Sirens, 2004” in which two teenage girls playfully cover each other with small flowers from a nearby bush. There are also moments of loneliness or isolation as seen in the photograph “Zsuzsa in May, 2005.” In the bottom left hand corner of the frame stands Zsuzsa. With her back to a single empty swing and the kids playing behind it, she stares downward, disconnected and lost within herself.
As Lynne Haney writes in her accompanying essay Together Alone, the children “express the loss of a very basic kind of intimacy, of a familial intimacy, that the collective might not be a complete substitute for.” In the photograph “In the Woods, 2002,” two young girls, very much in their own world, dress and care for infant dolls with a seriousness only attributable to the most sincere. Although this kind of play is universal to young girls everywhere, this photograph indicates that their familial loss, as well as the attempt to recover it, is not far from the children’s minds.
The City of Children is an expression of the closeness Merva has built with the children and a testament to the power of connection the camera is capable of rendering for the artist and viewer. It exemplifies the notion of home as a necessary personal, familial and social construction. Last, much as The City of Children has been a point of cultural reconnection for Merva, it has become, in a greater sense, a visual representation of the complex yet universal importance of the places we call home.
Colin Edgington is a photographer and educator based in Phillipsburg, New Jersey
To view more of Colin's work, please visit his website