8 Year Old Girl, 6 Month Old Weed, 1974
Robert Cumming, American, born 1943
Gelatin silver print
Image: 9 5/8 × 7 5/8 in. (24.4 × 19.4 cm) Sheet: 9 13/16 × 7 3/4 in. (24.9 × 19.7 cm) Mount: 19 7/8 × 15 7/8 in. (50.5 × 40.3 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Louisa Stude Sarofim
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
Using Figures of Speech
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Interpret works of art from their titles.
• Recognize and identify figurative language, idioms, similes, and metaphors.
• Correctly use figurative language by developing titles for works of art.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Think of the expression, “growing like a weed.” Cumming takes this common phrase and interprets it literally to show the error inherent in that expression. He stages the photograph to illustrate his point and presents it in a deadpan manner. It really doesn’t matter if the weed is six months old. The juxtaposition of the girl and the weed, together with the title, is enough to make the viewer question the truth of a common phrase. Cumming recalls a story from his childhood that may be the inspiration for this photograph:
When I was around 8 or 9, I found this funny little plant growing by our fence out back. I watered it a lot and it grew really fast. I was sure it was a sunflower or corn or something. It grew to about 10 feet high, and by then it was apparent that it was a weed.
While this may look like a casual photograph, Cumming carefully composed this work to emphasize the differences between the girl and the weed. The girl and the plant are in the center, placed against a plain white wall and framed on either side by wooden doors. The contrast in the heights of plant and girl is emphasized by the shadows they cast against the wall. The artist also focuses on the differences in textures among the plant, clothing, bricks, and wood.
Cumming usually photographs ordinary objects from unusual angles, forcing the viewer to see things in a new way. Throughout his work Cumming has focused on the tension between the abstract and the material, the ethereal and the mundane, the ironies in life. He says, “You scoop up a lot of fragments of reality – the motion of a hand, a conversation here, a sound of something, the look of something – the little pieces. And you squeeze them out in a different form.”
Robert Cumming was born in 1943 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Massachusetts College of Art and a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has worked in many media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, written narrative, video, and photography. Cumming finally chose photography as his medium because it seemed to allow him what he felt was his greatest artistic freedom.
Charles Hagen, “Robert Cumming’s Subject Object,” Artforum 21 (Summer 1983), p. 41.
What is this a photograph of? How would you describe the subject matter?
Where in the photograph is the greatest contrast between light and dark? How does the artist use contrast to focus attention in the composition?
What different textures can you distinguish?
Analog photography brings out light and shadow particularly well. Look for the shadows and the brightest areas in this photograph. Where do you think the light source is? Is it a natural or artificial light source? What time of day do you think this is?
What is the function of the background?
The contrast in the height of the plant and girl is emphasized by the shadows they cast against the wall. Which is the largest shadow? Does that surprise you?
The girl and the plant are in the center, placed against a plain white wall and framed on either side by wooden doors. What is the viewpoint or angle from which the photograph is taken?
The artist often photographed objects and people in and around his house and yard. While this may look like a casual photograph, he carefully composed this work to emphasize the differences between the girl and the weed. What differences do you see?
The artist focuses on the differences in textures among the plant, clothing, bricks and wood. Do you think a photograph is the best medium to portray realistic settings?
The girl in the photograph is standing next to a weed. What do you think the artist was trying to communicate? What does the expression ‘growing like a weed mean’ to you?
The title of the work is ‘8 year old girl, 6 month old weed’. Does knowing the title change your answer to the previous question?
The artist has talked about the inspiration for his photograph: “When I was around 8 or 9, I found this funny little plant growing by our fence out back. I watered it a lot and it grew really fast. I was sure it was a sunflower or corn or something. It grew to about 10 feet high, and by then it was apparent that it was a weed. Cumming takes this common phrase and interprets it literally to show the error inherent in that expression. Do you think there is place for humor in art?
- Working in cooperative groups, have students write brief summaries for the photograph.
- After writing their summaries, ask students to develop a new title for the photo using a figure of speech (i.e., Children Grow Like Weeds).
- From these, allow students to select the most effective titles/summaries for the photograph and explain the reasons for the choice. Display the new title and summary with the photograph.
Subject Matter Connection
In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing 8 Year Old Girl, 6 Month Old Weed and its familiar subjects, students can put into practice the art of observation. These observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subjects of 8 Year Old Girl, 6 Month Old Weed are familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider