ON the first day of photography class here at the Para Los Ninos Day Care Center, Jana Taylor asked her students, ``What is beautiful in your home?'' One by one, the children - latchkey and underprivileged kids living in skid row - replied: ``Nothing is beautiful in my home. Nothing,'' she recalls. At the end of the six-week class, Miss Taylor asked the same question. ``They told me they found beauty in the way `light hits the kitchen table,' `dirt reshapes the pattern on the floor,' and `birds sing in the trees outside the window,''' she says. ``They saw beauty in simple things.''
The changes in attitude were inspired by the ideas of this practitioner in the art of seeing, a believer that beauty resides within, and that the way each individual sees life is neither right nor wrong, but a unique and miraculous gift.
``I tell them that what they are taking pictures of is their own thinking,'' says Taylor, founder of the American Child Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up in 1983 to introduce poor and orphaned children to photography and other arts. She says exposure to the expressiveness of art can dramatically aid a child in dismal, often tumultuous surroundings. ``It's a concept that they, in their more simple innocence, can assimilate easier than adults - that they are viewing their own interior landscape. They grasp it and take wonderful pictures.''
The results she was able to inspire in one recent class were put on exhibition here last fall - mostly 8-by-10-inch portraits of family members, pets, and scenes around the house. Besides the wonderfully sensitive attention paid to light, form, and composition, the photographs were highly individual in subject matter: hands grappling with a door bolt, a garlanded girl with a rose, a mother and two sisters, two boys with dog.
But the more rarefied results seem to be changed attitudes.
``I can see things I never saw before,'' says student Elisa Sanchez. ``I also found ugly can be turned into beautiful your way.'' ``Photography is real nice because you get to see things a better way,'' says Rafael Hous. ``The camera can help take you beyond what you see in front of you - see beauty in a piece of wood or even in the trash.''
``I see life as something that's important rather than just something to run through,'' says Ralph Flores. ``It's important that we stop and see what's there rather than run away from it.''
The ages of the children in Taylor's class run from 11 to 14. Many are children of homeless, some living in the well-known Midnight Mission camp nearby or in one-room family hotels and apartments. Taylor, a successful art photographer, gives her time regularly at places like the Vista Del Mar Orphanage in Culver City and the Para Los Ninos Day Care Center downtown.
Nikon and Eastman Kodak donate cameras, film, and processing, and Coca-Cola provides additional funds. The foundation also raises funds to provide children with materials and supplies. And it has made it possible for dancers, musicians, painters, and photographers to visit community centers throughout the nation. Those children showing exceptional ability can win scholarships to continue their education in the arts.
``Basically I want to awaken consciousness, inspire these children on a creative level,'' says Taylor. ``Many of these children have been abandoned, literally left on someone's doorstep. It is important that they be loved, moved, and inspired,'' she says.
``They must know that they have an inner worth that is vibrant and wonderful.''
Eleven years ago, Jana Taylor was a successful actress with seven feature films behind her, numerous television appearances, and a starring role in a daytime soap opera. Having her first child changed her priorities. Leaving acting behind to take care of her baby son, she found that her need for creative outlet led to discovering the camera as a hobby. The hobby led to a small business, then a life mission.
She started photographing her son in a small studio in the garage, which led to doing photos of neighbor children and friends, she says. When she went back to acting briefly, she found it ``too sensual, too materialistic,'' she says, and started photographing for a living.
Her passion was children.
``The heart and soul of my mission became taking pictures of children in their innocence and blowing them up larger than life - so people would have to look up to them rather than down,'' she says. In doing so, she would never pose them, or try to get them to smile.
``I feel I am a documentary photographer, in that I just report what I see to the world, trying to make people see children as they really are, which is to say full of integrity, spontaneity, and intelligence.''
She quickly earned praise for her candid photos of children, some famous themselves or from families of the famous, such as the children of Joe Namath or Soleil Moon Frye, who plays TV's ``Punky Brewster.''
``Jana Taylor is one of the best children's photographers in America,'' remarked Sue Antebi, president of Inner Circle, a powerful support group at the Los Angeles Children's Museum, after an exhibition there. Her work has also appeared in such magazines as Vogue and Los Angeles Interview and under contract to ``Baby Guess?'' clothes by Georges Marciano and Saks Fifth Avenue. ``After a while I realized just being passionate about photography and taking pictures of children is kind of selfish,'' she says. ``I felt the need to pass on the gift of vision to the children themselves.''
She used part of her profits from commercial jobs to start the foundation and buy arts materials. She spends parts of three days a week at various Los Angeles locations. And she continues shooting advertising campaigns. Her recent exhibit led to another this month (18-29) at the ARCO Plaza. And the city Mission for the Homeless and Boys Clubs have hired her for special assignments.
``The message of my photography and my teaching is that life is good, even though many of the children got a shaky start, and goodness is the foundation of everything. I tell them they are all geniuses, that nobody can tell you what to look for in the camera, what to see, if it's bad or good; no one can criticize it. They love it.''
She talks less about the technical aspects of photography than in questioning what is art, creativity, and individuality. She speaks of developing a ``central stillness,'' which she describes as ``trying to feel at one with myself until I feel the impulse to click the shutter.''
Taylor says she has the same messages for lectures and talks she gives elsewhere in town, such as the monied communities of Beverly Hills and Malibu.
``When I ask the richer kids what's beautiful to them, it's always something material,'' she says, ``like a bike, or a rug in their room or electronic toy. But in the poor area of town, the beauty is always a person, or a pet or an idea.''
She adds that therefore one must always be careful in how he connects ideas to things.
``I told them [students at Para Los Ninos Day Care Center] that the camera is their best friend,'' she says. ``I said that when you look through that lens, nobody can take that experience away from you. Nobody.''
When the six-week course was up and it came time to return the cameras, one child remarked, ``But you told us they were our best friend!''
``So now I give them the cameras,'' she says laughing. ``And why not, if they associate it with a whole new way of seeing.''