Beginning in 1984 photographer Stephen Shames traveled around the country documenting the lives of some of the millions of children who live in poverty in this affluent land of ours.
Judging from the results of this five-year project, it must have been a heart-rending experience.
"Outside the Dream: Child Poverty in America" is the fitting title for an exhibition of 22 Shames photographs opening Friday in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's Clifton Hall Link.
It is an exhibition charged with emol convey the painful loneliness of kids living out their years in some abandoned building or welfare hotel.
This is disturbing stuff, made more so by Shames' unflinching portrayals of these kids. Shames' apparent artlessness -- along with his choice of black and white over color photography -- also helps amplify the emotions conveyed by these works.
The show holds shots of decrepit welfare hotel rooms where an angry mother hammers with a broom on the ceiling. There are depressing views of little kids, hanging out on porch stoops and street corners, who have missed their childhoods and now think that life is only about being tough.
And the unhappy options to the street and stoops appear as well -- the shabby living rooms, the cluttered kitchens, the heaped alleys that serve as backyards.
Shames' extraordinary eye is apparent throughout the show. He keeps things simple, thereby concentrating the events contained in the shot. One photo of a Chicago boy by the name of Steve walking through the alley toward his apartment looks plain enough. But it still somehow conveys the loneliness of a 12-year-old with little more to his life than this alley.
The exhibition is not always grim. Happier moments are depicted, too.
The joy that games give children comes through, even when these games must be played in littered streets. Some are touching: one shows a little boy, sitting on his haunches, planting a loving kiss on his sister's cheek. And there are images that show the intense determination that desperate situations inspire -- like the shots of mothers marching and carrying signs in the hope that their children will have better food to eat tomorrow than they have today.
The exhibition may have a note of urgency for those who see current politics as offering a less
than bright future for the children of American. Whatever politics may portend, this is a show for all to see as a reminder that all is not well in the land of plenty.
Shames himself has faith in these kids.
"These are good kids," he writes. "They are likable. They have dreams and hopes." His own hope is that these photographs will somehow help these children to become a part of the American dream that they missed.
The show is presented on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Community Action Organization of Erie County Inc. - Head Start. It is presented in cooperation with CAO-Head Start and the Buffalo Chapter of The Girl Friends Inc.
The exhibition continues on view through May 31.