A few springs ago, photographer Steven Planck was cleaning out his mother’s attic. He was sorting through 25 years of detritus that had accumulated in the neglected space when he came across the relics of his childhood: three cardboard boxes full of well-used stuffed animals, Matchbox cars, and GI Joe figures. He found Voltron action figures and a Lazer Tag game he had shared with his sister. He found an old dictionary given to him by his absent father and a treasured stuffed bear he called L’il Truff.
These unexpected discoveries brought back years of childhood memories and put him right back in elementary school with all its innocent pastimes. As he looked through the boxes, he became a kid again, looking forward while still simultaneously looking back as an adult. “It’s nice to reflect on where you’ve come from, and where you are today, and whether or not you’re closer or further from where you thought you’d be,” Planck says. But the boxes also forced him to confront, in real space and time, just what he gave up from his childhood. He was struck by how much most adults sacrifice to conformity, and how much wisdom they lose in the search for understanding.
The experience was a profound one for Planck and inspired a sprawling photography project that is at once a meditation on youth and aging and an attempt to recover early innocence. Through this project, Planck wants to reconnect people with their childhoods, when there was room for a little fun. “We’re all consumed by the pressure of everyday things,” Planck says. “I just don’t think we’re enjoying life anymore.”
Planck conceived the portrait project as a three-part series, with a distinctly different look for each component. He dubbed the series thetwentytenproject (www.thetwentytenproject.com) for the planned year of its completion and held his first open photo shoot last April, when he shot over 500 frames. Next month, on November 15 and 16, he will hold another open photo shoot at his Wappingers Falls studio—a sunny, white space in the Market Street industrial park that he shares with several other photographers. The studio is organized into four different shooting spaces, replete with lighting equipment, backdrops, and props, but the vibe remains relaxed and informal.
For the first piece of the project, Planck shoots his subjects with toys from their childhood, in a black-and-white, flat, naturalistic style. In these portraits, the toys take on a totemic significance. These portraits are a little lonely, capturing their subjects and the objects they hold dear in an isolated and vulnerable moment, not unlike childhood itself.
When Tommy Confrey heard about the upcoming shoot, he knew exactly the toy he would bring. “Have you heard of Labyrinth?” Confrey asks. Confrey recalls the hours he spent sitting at a tiny table in a tiny chair hunched over the game, trying to navigate a marble through the wooden maze.
He appreciates Planck’s vision for the project. “I think it’s an interesting idea, how you move from being a child to adulthood, and how you have to move away from being happy and carefree, and box yourself up to be an adult,” he says.
In the second piece of the project, Planck offers a colorful, highly stylized version of play, shooting his subjects with their faces pressed up against a plane of glass. They’re hamming it up for the camera the way they did when they were kids, but in so doing, they provide a startling view of adulthood—wrinkles, stubble, bald spots, and all.
Franc Palaia participated in this shoot and said the experience was fun and comfortable. In one shot, Palaia is creeping in from the bottom of the frame, face smushed up against the glass, eyes cast heavenward, nostrils flared, a shock of salt-and-pepper hair wreathing his head. “When you’re doing it, there’s no way you can tell what it looks like,” he says.
For the third piece, Planck is photographing his subjects in confined spaces. He is wedging them into the tight spots that are synonymous with adulthood, when people become hemmed in by deadlines, schedules, worry, and responsibility.
The portraits are “a little rebellious,” Planck says. They represent an opportunity for subjects to play outside the boundaries of adult expectations about “how you’re supposed to look and act, and what is and isn’t expected of us.”
Taken as a whole, the project is an elegy for the childhoods we had, and a yearning for the ones we didn’t. Not surprisingly, Planck categorizes his own childhood as “a little traumatic, a little chaotic.” Planck’s parents divorced when he was just three years old, and after the divorce his father slipped out of the picture and never really returned. His mother worked long hours, and Planck recalls being on his own a lot. He and his sister spent a lot of time by themselves, making their own fun, he said. Over the years, he received sporadic letters from his father, full of cautionary advice about enjoying his youth. One letter, charmingly titled “Bird’s Nest Soup,” advised, “Never move so fast or get so far ahead of yourself that you can’t slow down and smell the roses.”
Through thetwentytenproject Planck has given us the opportunity to explore our own neglected inner spaces. He wants us to open that old box of relics and examine its contents. We are afforded an opportunity to reclaim the essential parts of ourselves and to reconnect with the joy of living. Planck is careful to emphasize that he doesn’t have an agenda for this show. He doesn’t want to tell people what to think, or what to do, but he hopes that the photographs will remind them of the things they’ve forgotten. “I hope that they smile,” he says. “That’s the only thing I could hope for.”