State of Photography for Children’s Fiction Books

by Tracy Leshay

Works of photographically-illustrated children’s fiction can seem as elusive as unicorns.


© againAGAINbooks – Tracy Leshay

Non-fiction titles and infant board books abound. But stroll through the aisles – scroll
through 100 pages of Amazon’s picture book section, and behold; the land of make
believe is ruled by pen and brush. One might conclude photographs are incompatible
with imaginative story telling, but camera-made titles have met with success many times over. While hurdles exist, the most surprising obstacle seems to come from the photographic community itself.

Photographically-illustrated fiction is no stranger to mass appeal. Mus White’s From the
Mundane to the Magical and Beyond: Photographically Illustrated Children’s Books
1854-1945, lists many – including still-recognizable works by Harry Whittier Frees. Dare
Wright’s Lonely Doll series of the 50s enjoys coveted brick-and-mortar shelf space to
this day. And a museum-caliber artist, who experimented with his Polaroid 20×24 in the
90s, is there as well; William Wegman’s current work is some of his best, and Wegman
and Weimaraner, to many, are now synonymous. Further photographically-illustrated
examples exist – enough to prove a [photographic] picture is worth 1,000 words.


© againAGAINbooks – Tracy Leshay

While this medium has challenges that pen and paint do not, they are not
insurmountable. Wegman recently stated that he only had a finite number of shots of
his growing puppy. As I wrote, She Yelled. I Screamed…She Pulled my Hair!, my
daughters – my characters, seemed to grow at puppy speeds too. Surely, there are
other headaches; clearance issues from capturing people, places and trademark
imagery are definitely one. But sometimes the photos themselves ignite our story-telling ability. A print series of my daughter’s hair made me a writer. For author, Ransom
Riggs, curated flea market photos of macabre children were the catalyst. The images
not only inspired his book series, but an upcoming Tim Burton film as well.

Capturing the fantastical, the dangerous, or those impossible to reach places (i.e. flying pigs in outer space), was once a stumbling block for photographers. Computers have since leveled the playing field. A growing number of collaborations, between mediums – between artists, are bringing increased attention to books photographically illustrated.


© againAGAINbooks – Tracy Leshay

Since its 1938 beginnings, the Caldecott has yet to award its highest medal of artistry in
children’s picture books to a photographic work. But in 2005 and 2008, it honored Mo Williams’ Knuffle Bunny books. His black and white photographs created a city setting for his colorfully drawn characters. In 2015, again, the Caldecott honored a mixed media story. But the honor was only given to Vive Frida’s author/artist and not to its photographer, Tim O’Meara. As mixed-media works continue to come to market, it will be interesting to see if their photographic contributors are recognized as well.

This leads to a greater question; why hasn’t a photographic organization established an
award for photographically illustrated books in children’s fiction and non-fiction? If they
had, works like Abelardo Morell’s stunning Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1998)
would be on more children’s shelves and Wegman’s own shelf might hold a lifetime
achievement award. Awards should never be the goal, but consider how recognition
could transform the genre:

• An awarded first book might leverage a photographer’s second book.
• The blogosphere of pre and post-award discussions, would give all the year’s
releases a platform on which to be discovered.
• Self-promotion by the award-offering organization would include praise to
previous honorees – keeping their titles alive and in print.
• A diverse community of photo illustrators would grow and the quality of releases
would as well.
• Publishers would take note.

Who better to tout the quality of a book’s photographs than those educated in the
medium? The First Annual Award for Photographic Illustration in Children’s Books need
not remain imaginative fiction. Surely, there is a non-profit organization ready to pick up
the baton. Because if not, then who will?

Web_Tracy_BW_HeadshotTracy Leshay is an award-winning author of photographically-illustrated of children’s

You can check out Tracy’s website here and her Social Media sites here: Pinterest, Twitter & Facebook.

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