March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
The painter Balthasar Klossowski, who called himself Balthus, worked with the model Anna Wahli in Switzerland in the 1990s when she was 8 to 16 years of age and he was in his 80s. As he could no longer draw with pencils easily, his chosen method of study in his old age was to take Polaroid photographs of his subject. Decades before this time, Balthus had established a reputation for pushing the limits with his oil paintings, which often featured young girls undressed, in sexually suggestive poses, and/or in sexually charged situations. The Polaroids reveal that he often worked with live models rather than only from his imagination. The use of live nude child models was in fact the typical way the great painters through the ages had drafted their paintings. The photos of Anna included some where she was fully clothed but posing with her legs apart and some from later ages where her breasts were at least partially exposed because her robe was open [note 1].
New York City’s Gagosian Gallery was the first institution in the world to show any of the Polaroids to the general public. Only 155 of the photos, along with one of the unfinished paintings based on the photos, were on display at their exhibition “Balthus: the Last Studies” that ran from September 26, 2013 until January 18, 2014 without any legal intimidation from the American authorities.
Anna gave her permission for the photos showing her to be displayed [note 1]. Yet Balthus, who died in 2001, had never desired to display, publish, or sell the photos.
I saw that Anna’s right areola was partially bared in a photo from this show. Her chest looks flat in it.
Gagosian put some of the photos up for sale at the hefty price tag of $20,000 each. Who would pay such a crazy price? Photos of nude young people by Jock Sturges and Sally Mann are sometimes listed for a few thousand U.S. dollars, but this is way more than that for photos that don’t have the technical brilliance of Sturges’s and Mann’s works.
Some critics, including Der Zeit‘s Hanno Rauterberg, accused the late Balthus of having voyeuristically exploited Anna out of a “pedophilic” motivation to “sexualize” her [note 2]. Some also argued that the photos lack artistic value [note 3]. Do they? The Polaroid camera isn’t exactly well-known for art photography. However, David Hamilton [note 4] and Jacques Bourboulon [note 5] both photographed naked adolescent girls at times using a Polaroid camera, though it wasn’t their usual camera of choice.
The Museum Folkwang, a government-funded institution in Essen, Germany, had been preparing to show all 2,400+ of the Polaroid photos in an exhibit titled “Balthus: the Last Pictures” in April of 2014. Then they got cold feet in the wake of an article in the German newspaper Der Zeit [note 2]. Staff at Der Zeit went a step beyond just reporting on the museum’s plans by contacting the Essen Youth Office [note 6]. The museum staff then consulted with “various interested parties” to figure out if the exhibition would be permissible or not. The deputy chief officer Ulrich Engelen of the Essen Youth Office said, “We are not art experts, but we regularly check artistic works in relation to the protection of minors.” The office concluded that photos of Anna at the age of 8 were “not in the tolerance range”. So, in February 2014, the museum announced that the Balthus photos would not be displayed by them because it “could lead to unwanted legal consequences and a closing of the exhibition”.
As Rauterberg’s noted, analogous situations have recently been confronting art galleries in other countries. “All of a sudden,” he wrote, photographs of naked children in the art world “are considered taboo, even though they bothered hardly anyone for years.” [note 2] An example he gave is the decision of the Tate Gallery in England to remove Graham Ovenden’s naked little girl photos from public display both online and offline after Ovenden was alleged to be a pedophile and convicted of “sexual abuse” by an English court. (Ovenden denies he’s a pedophile or that he ever engaged in sexual activities with children.)
But in the case of Anna’s plentiful photo sessions with Balthus, there isn’t even an allegation that Balthus had sexually touched her. Rauterberg even admitted that nobody forced Anna to pose for Balthus and that her parents agreed that she could. To that he added, “And although she would often prefer to play with her friends, she went to him. There was always candy, and what was more important: There was always undivided admiration.” [note 2]
Steidl Verlag, a book publisher in Göttingen, Germany, was, or is, planning to publish two volumes showing every Polaroid photo of Anna by Balthus.
But at the present time, debate is underway in Germany about whether new limits should be placed on child nudity. A proposed bill would outlaw the commercial sale of nude child images [note 7]. Not only photographs, but sculptures and paintings and more besides, would fall under this prohibition. All of them. The radical idea is an overreaction to the investigation of a German politician in connection with the Azov Films “nudist” video prosecutions.
Update added March 22, 2014:
Steidl went ahead with publication of the book ”Balthus – The Last Studies” on March 15, 2014 and the book launch took place at the Librairie Polonaise in Paris by March 22. The book also includes at least one fully topless black-and-white photo of Anna while her breasts were small and budding and she looked maybe 12.
1. “Balthus’s Last Muse” by Ingrid Sischy in Vanity Fair, October 2013, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/10/balthus-polaroids-photos-model
2. “Pädophiliedebatte in der Kunst: Die Bilder des Begehrens” by Hanno Rauterberg in Der Zeit, December 15, 2013, http://www.zeit.de/2013/50/fotografie-balthus-paedophilie-debatte/seite-1
3. “The Cultured and the Creepy: Balthus’s Parting Shots” by Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic, October 26, 2013, http://hyperallergic.com/90195/the-cultured-and-the-creepy-balthuss-parting-shots/ (“…he started using a Polaroid camera, badly. The images are fuzzy, repetitive and underexposed.”)
4. “Hamilton: Premiers Nus Polaroid” by David Hamilton in PHOTO, French edition, February 1981
5. “Des clichés un peu à part” by Jacques Bourboulon in Photo Magazine, April 1982
6. “Folkwang sagt Balthus-Schau nach Pädophilie-Verdacht ab” by Christina Wandt in Der Westen, February 4, 2014, http://www.derwesten.de/staedte/essen/folkwang-sagt-balthus-schau-nach-paedophilie-verdacht-ab-id8951121.html
7. “Germany slow to enact EU rule outlawing child porn” in DW.DE, February 28, 2014, http://www.dw.de/germany-slow-to-enact-eu-rule-outlawing-child-porn/a-17463002
December 24, 2013 § 6 Comments
The bi-annual Photokina: Weltmesse der Photographie (World Fair of Photography) opened on September 15, 1978 in Köln, West Germany. The French photographer Guy Bourdin had submitted a number of photos he wanted to exhibit in the Cultural Section but, in an example of non-governmental censorship, many of them were rejected by the fair’s organizers on the basis that they were “in bad taste”.
Most of the Bourdin’s rejected photos display naked adult women, with the exception of a photo of five topless prepubescent girls awake in bed with a sheet hiding their lower bodies. The white sheet is beautified with pink flower decorations, as are the white pillows. The wall behind them is solid pink.
Bourdin shot the girls’ photo in New York City in 1977 and it was published across two full pages in color in Vogue France in 1978. The photo as an expressive work didn’t violate either French or New York laws but the photographer illegally posed five girls in a small bedroom meant for at most two people, a point intentionally highlighted by showing the mandatory sign above the bed that read, in all capital letters, “OCCUPANCY BY MORE THAN 2 PERSONS IS DANGEROUS AND UNLAWFUL”.
Criticism #1: Some people interpret the photo as having something to do with pedophilia, implying that the lawbreaking girls are waiting unclothed in bed for an adult to sexually engage with them, also illegal.
Criticism #2: The girls are thought to be too heavily made up for their age as they’re wearing mascara and lipstick. Their hair is also stylized. The photo uncomfortably reminds one of the unnatural way some little girls look in American beauty pageants.
October 4, 2013 § 6 Comments
Between 1973 and 1976, Ellen Brooks, an American photographer and teacher from the San Francisco Art Institute, hired girl and boy models aged 10-15. Most of the models came to her in response to her newspaper advertisement [note 1]. More than 50 kids posed nude on and in front of a large white cloth, and many of them are identifiable as preteens at a glance. She obtained permission for them to pose from their parents. The models earned $3.50 per hour, more than double the U.S. minimum hourly wage of $1.60 in 1973. The photographs were shot with a black-and-white camera and reproduced in huge sizes.
17 photographs made up the original public exhibition titled “Adolescent Piece”. The University of Nevada-Las Vegas held the first exhibition in the autumn of 1976. This was followed by its displays at the Atholl McBean Gallery in San Francisco in 1977, the N.A.M.E. Gallery in Chicago in 1978, and the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art in 1979 and 2011. Two of her photos were shown in the multi-artist exhibition “Adolescents” at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York City in August-September 1997. Many different, never-before-seen photos were shown at the Andrew Roth Gallery in New York City between January 12 and February 18, 2006 under the nostalgic title “Vintage Photographs from the ’70s”. These presentations of the photos showed the children as they actually are, with their real faces visible.
One of her portraits of a girl identified by name as Monica was also published in a book in 1981 [note 3]. The same book’s portrait of a boy was also published in a book in 1978 where he was named Sebastian [note 2].
In her interview with the art gallery owner Leslie Tonkorow, Brooks said her motivation was to document the “vulnerability” of this “transitional period” in young peoples’ lives [note 4]. And in a statement she wrote in 1995, Brooks said her work expresses “self-consciousness and physical anxiety which are also experienced by teenagers at this particular time of bodily transformation and sexual awareness.” [note 5]
Vince Aletti likewise described the youngsters as “touchingly vulnerable and self-conscious in the early throes of puberty” and wrote that the photos “made an indelible first impression” [note 6].
The art critic Holland Cotter, who visited “Adolescents” at the Julie Saul Gallery, thought some of the models’ individual personalities shone through: “These attitudes also play out in two 1977 Ellen Brooks pictures of nude teen-agers, one of a girl with a knowing, sidelong smile, the other of a stunned-looking boy;” [note 7]
Brooks told Tonkorow:
“As a child I was interested in the body, first my own and then images represented in the world. Daily I would look at my parents’ book American Paintings and examine the painting Persephone by Thomas Hart Benton. The ultimate horror of a woman — being leered at, being vulnerable and unsuspecting. As an adult I realize this was a fantasy for many men. As a nine-year-old it was mixed with fear and terror and sex.” [note 4]
That’s strange: Brooks subjected these youngsters she photographed to the very thing she feared when she was slightly younger than them!
Another strange thing happened in 1995 when Brooks decided to create computerized mosaics of her 1970s photos to anonymize them. These were presented in an art gallery as a wall piece showing an imaginary girl and two imaginary boys all standing full-frontally nude. The boys’ faces noticeably don’t match their bodies. In her 1995 statement she expressed worry at the time about keeping “their privacy as adults” [note 5]. In contrast to the original unadulterated portraits (pun unintended), these mosaic people’s faces don’t look particularly youthful and of course they also look cold, like robots, with stern faces.
Brooks’s anonymization experiment didn’t last long and really didn’t make sense in the first place as the models had consented to pose at the time and were aware she was making a permanent record with her camera. While exhibitions can be changed over time, and some photographers accommodate their models’ requests to be removed from exhibitions, there was never any chance of Monica and Sebastian removing their photos from public view after they were published in those books so hopefully they never had any regrets about them.
The 2006 exhibit at the Andrew Roth Gallery included a grid of 70 photos titled “Stephanie 1975-77” tracking three years of the physical development of this named adolescent girl whose face and other features are all visible.
We can compare this project with other growth-tracking projects. The recently-deceased Spanish photographer Pere Formiguera made the flip-books Chico and Chica (coincidentally published in the same year, 2006) containing nude portraits of a prepubescent boy and prepubescent girl respectively seen over a number of years. Chica‘s model, Julia, faced the camera 63 times over a 10-year period from the time she was very little until she was about 10 or 11. Formiguera’s 2000 book Cronos had the same concept, for example showing a naked girl named Julia (a different Julia or the same one?) between 1991 and 1999 showing her growing up from a prepubescent into a teenager. Christian Vogt’s nude photos of the Swiss girl Mina at multiple stages of her physical development from ages 8 to 17 follow the same theme. Most recently, Jock Sturges is publishing the new book Fanny showing his naked female model Fanny over a 23-year period from early childhood to adulthood. Julia, Mina, and Fanny, like Stephanie, Monica, and Sebastian, were all presented with their real names.
As a side note, I noticed a contradiction. The Andrew Roth Gallery’s exhibition introduction stated “The subjects posed naturally, unselfconsciously (this is Brooks’ genius)” [note 1] whereas Brooks and Aletti thought that at least some of the kids were self-conscious.
Now let’s get to the heart of the matter. There’s more to the story than innocent, peaceful, thought-provoking pictures of young people without their clothes on: the underage models’ legs are frequently open. This was the case even with Monica’s book-published photo that I saw shows her around the age of 10 or 11 with both of her budding breasts showing as well as her small collection of pubic hairs and her genital cleft while she sits “Indian-style”. Stephanie also sat with spread legs at times, including but not limited to “Indian-style” poses like Monica’s. Those were not her only girl models to do so. I also saw three distinct photos of her boy models sitting spread-legged with various leg positions while their penises and scrotums were quite visible.
As I quoted above, Brooks admitted that her work partly deals with the theme of “sexual awareness”. In her interview with Tonkonow, she again reiterated that it’s “about sexuality, gender, and the presentation of the self at a moment of being on the cusp.” [note 4]
Brooks told Tonkonow, “… my eleven-year-old daughter asked if I would be a news topic in the New York Times and if I would be called a pornographer.” [note 4]
The notice in The New Yorker about her exhibition at the Andrew Roth Gallery stated:
“The judicial penalties that dog and deter any contemporary depiction of childhood sexuality give Brooks’s classically austere, black-and-white photographs of nude adolescents an outlaw aura. But the work, originally exhibited in 1976, comes from a different era, and it retains both a determined innocence and a foreboding sense that that time was almost up. Posed casually against draped backdrops, the kids seem at once vulnerable and self-possessed.” [note 8]
The only true problem with Brooks’s project is explained right there: the U.S. government currently considers works like hers child pornography. The U.S. Postal Service, in particular, has been actively pursuing people who mailed or purchased photographs and videos where the models are under 18 and show their reproductive organs when their legs aren’t strictly together at all times. It isn’t good enough that they aren’t engaged in sexual activity or that the work was promoted as nudism or art, two excuses that worked in the 1970s per the guidelines in the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Miller v. California [note 9]. At least we can say they aren’t discriminating on the basis of gender as they’ve put images of both boys and girls under the crosshairs.
The Andrew Roth Gallery suggested that Brooks posed the children “naturally”, whereas judges from the time of the Dost case call such poses “unnatural”. Who’s right? I tend to agree with the gallery’s opinion since something seems unnatural about a body of work (like Sturges’s post-courtcase collections) where the models rigidly keep their legs together because of a legal requirement to do so. Sturges admitted he was forced to change the way he poses his models. But everybody knows that people in the real world open their legs from time to time.
1. Andrew Roth Gallery, exhibition summary for “Vintage Photographs from the ’70s”
2. A Book of Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff (New York: Gray Press, 1978)
3. Still Photography: The Problematic Model (San Francisco: NFS Press, 1981)
4. Interview conducted by Leslie Tonkonow for Journal of Contemporary Art, http://www.jca-online.com/brooks.html
6. “You Can’t Go Home Again” by Vince Aletti in The Village Voice, March 14, 2000, http://www.villagevoice.com/2000-03-14/art/you-can-t-go-home-again/
7. “Art in Review” by Holland Cotter in The New York Times, August 1, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/01/arts/art-in-review-417343.html
8. “Galleries-Uptown” in The New Yorker, February 13 and 20, 2006, page 33, http://archives.newyorker.com/?iid=15137&startpage=page0000037
9. Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973).
March 19, 2013 § 2 Comments
The Michigan art photographer Donald Raymond Croft II, whose female models included prepubescents, adolescents, and adults as old as 34, was arrested and charged with child pornography offenses in May 2012.
Under the nickname “Rebel Shooter”, Croft operated the public sites girls-r-cute.com, alli-model.com, rebelscsm.net, and rebel-galleries.com to sell his photography. Most of his models were fully dressed. One of the models under 18 (I don’t know which) was his daughter but the others were other parents’ girls whom he hired after they were referred to him.
Alli (called “Miss-Alli”) was Croft’s youngest model. Born in 2002, she began working with him when she was 4 or 5 years old, with the blessing of her mother but not of her father. In some of Alli’s photo sets, she wasn’t wearing panties under her sometimes skimpy, netted, or holey outfits, so portions of her buttocks and genitals occasionally were exposed. In others, she was naked and wearing body paint. Her photos triggered an in-depth investigation of Croft by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) in 2011.
A legal disclaimer Croft posted on January 1, 2008 stated “All of the work displayed on this site, in each supermodel’s portfolio, and in all contracted work comply with Title 18 of the US Code and THE MICHIGAN PENAL CODE 750.145c and (EXCERPT) Act 328 of 1931.” [note 1] The sponsorship page at rebel-galleries.com stated in 2011-2012: “All of the Rebel-Galleries are produced with the intent of achieving the highest level of artistic expression and beauty while adhering to all of the US Federal and State laws.” [note 2] But according to the Criminal Complaint against Croft, he produced, distributed, and possessed photographs constituting child pornography [note 3].
The “Neon Alli” gallery is referenced by name in the complaint as one that caught the eye of Detroit Postal Inspector Wylie R. Christopher and which had also been known to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice. The previews to this gallery showed Alli “completely naked and covered with neon body paint.” This paint was black with streaks of green and orange.
Inspector Christopher attempted to purchase three galleries by money order — “Neon Nahla” (similar in nature to “Neon Alli”), “Miss Nahla Gallery 83”, and “Miss Alli 171” — but Croft refused to ship them through the mail. The inspector followed up by ordering hundreds of photos that were transmitted electronically. One was “Alli Gallery 185 (40).jpg” showing Alli “wearing a white shirt, white thong underwear, and white high-heel boots. She was lying on the floor with her legs open and it appears she blew a kiss to the camera. Her genitals were partially visible in this picture.” [note 3] Another was “Miss Alli’s Save the Tigers” gallery, part of Croft’s Premier Art Gallery at rebel-galleries.com, where Alli wore no clothes while her body was seen from the front and rear but had orange and white body paint in patterns mimicking a tiger’s coloration along with an attached tiger tail and tiger ears. The photo “Alli Save The Tigers (55).jpg” shows her “sitting down with her legs open. […] A portion of ‘Alli’s’ genitals are exposed in the photograph.” [note 3] Her chest and buttocks were also exposed in the tigers gallery but that has no legal consequences under U.S. federal law.
The inspector also obtained from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children 2,192 photos of Alli from other galleries, including a photo showing her “approximately 6 years old, standing, mostly naked, and wearing a white cowgirl hat and white cowgirl boots. Her genitals and breasts are clearly visible.” [note 3]
In February 2012 Croft deleted all preview photos of Alli from rebel-galleries.com, and the site went offline by May 10, 2012. His home had been searched by the USPIS on February 21, 2012 on which day he also granted an interview with an agent working for the USPIS. The complaint says “He was asked about photographs of ‘Miss Alli’ nude except for body paint. Croft stated he did not consider those photographs nude and stated her mother applied all the paint on Alli” [note 3]. A federal judge co-signed the criminal complaint against him on May 29, 2012.
In January 2013, Susan Clinton, the mother of Croft’s preteen model Nahla, born in September 2001, was charged with allowing her daughter to pose for alleged child pornography [note 4].
According to the complaint, “In one image !MG_92777.JPG, created on or about August 20, 2009, a pubescent [sic: actually prepubescent according to Scott Daugherty’s article which is consistent with the typical development of 7-year-olds] girl, referred to as Nahla on Websites 1 and 2, was lying on a bed with a leg extended into the air. She was wearing white, see-through, fish-net lingerie. She is not wearing any undergarments and her naked genitals are completely exposed and visible to the camera.” [note 3]
Scott Daugherty’s article states Croft had told Clinton he was going to make a book with his photos as he considered them art.
Croft was inspired by other artists who worked with young girls, such as David Hamilton. The front cover of Hamilton’s nude girl book The Age of Innocence appeared behind Alli in a non-nude gallery where she wore a white shirt, black vest, and plaid skirt and posed on a carpeted floor.
Croft was an acquaintance of Dale Russell, who had also photographed nude girls, and told people he was aware of Russell’s “Maternal Love” photo set. The online interview alluded to in the complaint was conducted in the year 2010 between Croft and the interviewer nicknamed “Highvoltage” [note 5]. “Rebel Shooter” said in that interview, “I believe that Dale and I shared similar views on the first amendment and I know first hand that he didn’t have a very good attorney.”
Croft isn’t preferentially or exclusively attracted to little girls and has had one or more sexual relationships with adult women. There is no evidence that he ever had sexual contact with a child.
The case against Croft confirms that American law enforcement agencies keep current photographers of prepubescent child models under intense scrutiny and are looking for every slightest violation of the law. Parallel to the USPIS’s Azov Films cases involving nude young boys, the open-legged display of girl genitals causes the USPIS to pursue prosecution. Whether they are engaging in overreach, whether the post office should spend money on nude child investigations at a time when mounting losses are forcing cost-cutting measures like ending Saturday deliveries, and whether the law should stand depends on your point of view.
An article to follow will discuss the American photographer Ellen Brooks’s open-legged nudes of preteen girls and boys that have been on display in art galleries and books and have not been prosecuted.
3. Criminal Complaint by postal inspector Wylie R. Christopher filed May 29, 2012 in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, United States of America v. Donald Raymond Croft, http://www.archive.org/download/gov.uscourts.mied.270475/gov.uscourts.mied.270475.2.0.pdf
4. “Va. Beach woman charged with aiding in child porn” by Scott Daugherty in The Virginian-Pilot, January 18, 2013, http://hamptonroads.com/2013/01/va-beach-woman-charged-aiding-child-porn
5. “Everyone loves Miss Alli!” by High Voltage in Little Girl Heaven, October 29, 2010, http://web.archive.org/web/20101102170725/http://ligiheaven.com/?p=372
September 14, 2012 § 7 Comments
The website of Azov Films, a long-time Ontario, Canada-headquartered seller of boy nudist videos and of mainstream cinematic films showing nude boys and girls, suddenly went dark on May 1, 2011 when law enforcement agents concurrently raided their distribution center in New York and their headquarters in Toronto. The case began seven months earlier, in October 2010, when the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and agents of the FBI and Ukrainian police started an investigation.
The U.S. and Canadian federal governments consider Azov Films to have produced and sold child pornography and began rifling through their customer database. The U.S. feds’ first reported target is a doctor in Massachusetts who worked with children as a pediatrician and had been a repeat customer of the company, racking up a total bill of $2,695 from 19 transactions. On September 13, 2012, this doctor was arrested and had his house searched. Brought into the federal court in Boston, he pled not guilty.
Most of the videos themselves were produced in Europe, especially in Ukraine. Some of the boys were past puberty while others were prepubescent. The prosecutors’ affidavit indicated that Azov’s videos show boys under 18 years of age who (among other things) undress on camera, wrestle in the nude, shower, and play nude Twister games [note 1].
According to Rachel Quigley’s article [note 2], one of the videos investigators accused of constituting child pornography was somewhat salaciously described on the Azov Films website as follows:
“We bring you action-packed discs of ooey-gooey slippery goodness. This two set disc features (name) and his buddies going commando in a very unique way.
They’re sweet enough but that didn’t stop them from breaking out sugary cupcakes and giving you a whole new perspective on nudist food fighting.”
Enthusiasts of Azov Films identified this as a video entitled Fun Fights.
The affidavit in the pediatrician’s case also lists other video titles like Boy Fights XX: Late Night Party that were made by Azov [note 2b].
When Azov’s site was operational, I saw many screenshots from their nudist videos and did not see any sexual conduct or patterns of eroticism. However, some boy-lovers saw moments in some of the videos where boys had erections:
“I read somewhere that an Azov film called ‘Winter Boys’ forgot to edit out the erection part one of the boys gets at the sauna for about a minute or so, the LB is covering it with his hand first but in the end he takes it off.” [note 3]
“Someone at BL Net forums claimed that one of the latest Azov ‘naturist’ films, which I better not name here, shows one of the young boys with an erected penis inside the sauna, he tries to cover it up a little from the other boys placing his hand on top but in the end just let’s it stay loose.” [note 4]
“So… I’ve heard, and, well, seen that in three movies, of the naturist movies, there are boners. ofc this is normal for boys,” [note 5]
“…Azov films and I have nocited from the previews and the profilios that somtimes the boys get hard-ons” [note 6]
A boy-lover also told of infrequent examples of a graphic focus on the genitals of boys:
“Just a word of warning: you might find the occasional closeup of genitals in the Baikal Film line.” [note 7]
The affidavit describes Fun Fights (unidentified by title, only by the store’s description of it, and the store is not named either) as follows:
“The video depicts minor boys seen naked in an apartment living room setting eating desserts and other food. There are several close-ups of the minors’ genitals and pubic area as they eat desserts and towards the end of the film several of the boys are seen sitting naked on the desserts and placing the remnants in their anuses.” [note 2b]
Another theme that made investigators believe Azov violated the law is spread legs. According to the affidavit, BF v2.0: Black Sea 2.0 has several such scenes:
“At this time the three minor males are naked on the bed and start to have a pillow fight and are playing. During this playing, the minor males have their legs apart exposing their genitals. […] The movie then shows two minor males under the age of 18 years on a bed naked with their legs apart exposing their genitals.” [note 2b]
…as does BF v2.0: FKK On Tour:
“After a short time the three minor males are in various stages of undress in a bedroom. They proceed to become naked on the bed with their legs apart exposing their genitals.” [note 2b]
“The minor males are in the shower, playing Twister naked, sitting on the couch with their legs apart exposing their genitals.” [note 2b]
But under these criteria, people should also be arrested for selling and owning the more blatantly child pornographic works by Larry Clark (Teenage Lust), Will McBride (Show Me!), Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), and Edgard Navarro (Eu Me Lembro), and yet they aren’t, making this an example of selective prosecution.
I don’t know whether there are any genital closeups or erections in most of the other films involved in the doctor’s indictment, but the genital closeups and leg spreads are what prompted his arrest so they are not targeting simple non-sexual nudity.
But seriously, why should we care if a naked boy shows his erection or a naked girl opens her legs if they’re happy with the project they’re appearing in? The man is being accused of receiving child pornography but where are the statements and testimonies from the boys themselves that they want him arrested and that they never enjoyed what they did? This case looks like a waste of taxpayer money at a time when the U.S. government is already deep in debt, causing more harm to boys of the future than any nudist video ever could.
In its last days, Azov started branching out into photography productions, offering for sale a set of color photographs of a smiling Ukrainian adolescent boy fully nude from the front and back. They promised more boy photo sets someday and wanted to create nudist videos with boys and girls together.
Azov also sold erotic works of cinema with naked young people such as Maladolescenza, Little Lips, and The Tin Drum, and a sex education film called Sexuele Voorlichting that shows children masturbating and touching each others’ genitals, but I don’t see these particular films mentioned in the news articles or the affidavit, although less explicit films with minors’ nudity like Seven Freckles and Sommerjubel are listed in the affidavit.
Update added October 6, 2012:
In late September and early October 2012, four additional men in Massachusetts and Rhode Island were arrested for having purchased nudist videos produced by Azov Films and the affidavits for these cases have also been released.
Update added October 11, 2012:
Azov Films buyers have also been arrested outside of the northeastern U.S., with targets in Texas and Oklahoma.
Second update added October 11, 2012:
We have learned that the doctor in Massachusetts wasn’t the first buyer arrested in this case. A former teacher was arrested in Georgia on Thursday, July 26, 2012 [note 8].
Update added October 30, 2012:
In the criminal complaint against a maintenance worker in Georgia, U.S. Postal Service Inspector Jeff Adkins wrote, “At present, it is estimated that the website was selling over 600 movies. Members of the foreign law enforcement Child Exploitation Section have categorized 160 movies sold by the Website as containing child pornography. USPIS reviewed the movies categorized by foreign law enforcement Child Exploitation Section and concurred that movies for sale by the Foreign Company contained child pornography, as defined by US federal law.” The customer in Georgia had made a total of 39 purchase transactions from Azov Films. The complaint lists the following partial list of his orders: “Puberty: Sexual Education for Boys and Girls” (the English title of “Sexuele Voorlichting”), “Boy Fights XXII: Commando Knights”, “Vladik’s Spring Break”, “BF v2.0: FKK On Tour Portfolio”, “BF v2.0: Black Sea 2.0 Portfolio”, “Cutting Room Floor: Vlaviu”, and “Paul in Pictures”. Inspector Adkins personally reviewed four of the listed films but “Puberty” was not among those he watched. Here are some of the scenes Adkins watched and described:
“Vladik’s Spring Break depicts naked boys inside an apartment or in an indoor pool area. There is constant footage of the boys naked and interacting with one another, to include the boys bent over a tub with four boys’ naked anuses exposed in the air. Digital images from BF v 2.0 FKK on Tour depict three naked boys on a bed, sometimes with their penises erect, interacting with one another, to include covering themselves with body paint.” [note 9]
Update added October 31, 2012:
While some of Azov’s films do contain child pornography scenes under U.S. statutory definitions and case law, some of the defendants didn’t order any of these lascivious materials. Defendant Wilson’s two attorneys filed a “motion to suppress evidence” on October 5, 2012 in which they name Azov as the company from which Wilson ordered the films and indicate that “None of the DVDs ordered by Wilson and reviewed by Inspector Adkins are alleged to be of the 160 found to contain child porn by either the Toronto police or the USPIS.” [note 10] One of his attorneys wrote that there was no probable cause for a search of Wilson’s home. The search warrant affidavit was deficient because the films Wilson ordered don’t contain lascivious scenes, the films weren’t described in sufficient detail, and the magistrate judge wasn’t shown any lascivious images. This attorney cited several cases that confirmed that nudist films and magazines are legal [notes 11,12]. Furthermore, wrote the attorney, “art photography books of nude minors such as, Age of Innocence by David Hamilton, contain far more provocative images than anything described by USPI Adkins, are recognized to be legal, and are readily available in bookstores throughout the United States.”
Update added December 8, 2012:
Anti-Azov operations have expanded to continental Europe. So far, Spanish police have raided the homes of 38 Spanish customers of Azov and arrested 28 of them [note 13]. The police stated that their operation deals with the boy nudist videos produced in Romania, Ukraine, and Germany. They characterized them as abusive, a word I don’t feel makes sense to describe scenes of boys who aren’t engaging in sexual acts.
Update added January 28, 2013:
The authorities’ crackdown against Azov and its customers, which as a side effect revealed child pornography discoveries of other sorts, is known by the code name Operation Spade [note 14].
Update added April 4, 2013:
Azov customer Gary Byrd’s public defender filed a motion to dismiss the case on February 5, 2013 [note 15]. The motion argues that the statute Title 18 U.S.C. 2256’s language “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area” is unconstitutionally vague. Images of children who are just displaying parts of their bodies don’t portray sexually explicit conduct in the everyday person’s understanding of the word conduct, unlike sexual intercourse or masturbation. American law assumes that children are innocent of sexuality, therefore prosecutors and judges who read supposedly nonexistent sexuality into a merely nude image of “a child frolicking about” or “nude photos of minors in a food fight, swimming in a pool, lying on a sofa or riding a fourwheeler” are contradicting themselves. The motion contends that the word explicit in common parlance means something that’s “distinctly expressed” and “leaving nothing for interpretation”, yet the current law’s vagueness leads to contending interpretations of images because it fails to provide a clear line between legal and illegal. It also argues that it’s overly broad because it creates a “chilling effect” against child nudity because many a person will “modify his behavior to avoid nude photos of minors” so as to avoid a possible court case under the vague law despite many such photos being ostensibly protected speech.
Update added June 5, 2013:
Denver Postal Inspector Robert C. Barnett viewed “Paul in Pictures”, a collection of 393 photos. Barnett’s description informs us that some of these photos broke the law in the same ways that some of the videos did: “In several of the photos the boys legs are spread and his genitalia is clearly exposed. There are some close-up shots of the genitalia. In some of the photos the boy’s anus is clearly exposed.” [note 16]
Update added October 11, 2013:
Some defendants, Keller for example, changed their pleas from “not guilty” to “guilty” before their trials could take place. Only a few cases have gone to trial, such as those of Byrd and Forrest, both of whom were found guilty by juries.
Update added November 14, 2013:
Multiple Swedish and Canadian customers were arrested in November 2013. Dozens of customer arrests were also announced in Australia and other countries. The owner of Azov Films, Brian Way, remains in jail in Canada pending a trial where he is facing 25 charges among which are selling child pornography, possessing child pornography, and instructing a criminal organization [note 17].
Update added December 5, 2013:
On October 30, 2013, defendant Gerald Silva’s attorney filed a “motion to dismiss” the indictment against him on the basis that the federal statute about “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area” suffers from being “unconstitutionally vague” [note 18]. The motion compares the word “lascivious” with the word “indecent” that was key to the 1997 case Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union related to the vague Communications Decency Act of 1996. The defense argues that these terms along with “patently offensive” are “open-ended terms bereft of concrete definition.” The vagueness of the notion of lasciviousness causes the statute to be “in violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” The motion quotes model jury instructions that are given to federal jurors in several judicial circuits, then comments on problems with them: “The various model jury instructions reinforce the argument that the term ‘lascivious’ is unconstitutionally vague. They recite the Dost factors and then limit the import of those factors. They [sic] First Circuit instructions specifically talk about case-specific factors. There is simply no way the term ‘lascivious’ provides the defendant in this case with fair notice of what is prohibited. It does not tell him what may be viewed and what may not be viewed. It is also unconstitutionally vague because it fails to provide standards for law enforcement officers to protect against arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” The motion admits that multiple other cases that included vagueness challenges (including United States v. Reedy, United States v. Wiegand, United States v. Freeman, United States v. Wolf) ended with the upholding of the lascivious exhibition portion of the federal child pornography law. And, indeed, as I reported on earlier, Azov defendant Gary Byrd lost his case despite having filed a similar motion to dismiss his charges on the basis of the vagueness of the statute.
Update added February 11, 2014:
Silva’s attorney’s motion to dismiss didn’t succeed and on February 10, 2014 a jury convicted Silva of both possessing and receiving child pornography [note 19].
Update added February 28, 2014:
Azov Films is now being seen in a new light, as something other than informed consent, in the wake of disturbing allegations by several Romanian boys who were shown naked in some of the films by videographer Markus Roth. The boys say that during the years they worked with Roth they had no idea that the films were being sold and that huge numbers of people all over the world were seeing them [notes 20,21]. Also, the boys claim that Markus instructed them never to tell their parents, or anybody else, about the films. Roth, for his part, denies he told them to keep the filming a secret from their parents, but admits that he didn’t inform the boys that their naked images could make their way to the Internet. Now one of the boys says “I feel very embarrassed” and some (but not all) of the others also feel distressed. The boys were paid money for their participation but were deceived about why the films were being made. At least some of them were told a lie by Markus that they were merely going to be privately viewed by Markus’s sister. Some of Roth’s films were among the ones Azov Films sold that violated child porn laws both in Romania and in foreign countries. An example given by a journalist: One of his commercially successful films, Winter Play, included a boy showing his erection [note 20].
Update added January 29, 2017:
A Canadian Azov customer, George Kraus, was sent to prison for child porn possession in part for owning a mainstream film he had bought from Azov, Barnens ö (The Children’s Island), described by journalist Tracy Holmes as containing a scene of “a boy aged 10 to 12 years old shown looking at a naked woman and masturbating.” [note 22] Judge Ellen Gordon reasoned that films “portraying children… engaged in sexual activity are harmful to children, whether they are films made in someone’s basement or films made for commercial use”. The actor was actually 13 at the time.
Barnens ö was also part of the child porn possession cases against the American Azov customers David Corkett [note 23] and Charles David Compton [note 24].
On May 12, 2015, Brian Way was convicted of possessing, publishing, and selling child porn videos in a verdict delivered by Ontario Superior Court Judge Julie Thorburn [note 25]. The judge ruled that about 60 of Azov’s films were child porn under Canadian law because they included genital closeups and sexualized poses and the nudity was both lengthy and gratuitous. She argued that “The films became increasingly sexual… I’m satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that those films… were made for a sexual purpose.” One of the films she found particularly problematic showed naked boys putting toothpaste on each other’s bodies and then arching their bodies backward so that viewers saw their “penises in the air.”
1. “Pediatrician accused of receiving child porn charges” by Jonathan Phelps in The Eagle Tribune, September 14, 2012, http://www.eagletribune.com/latestnews/x2076995086/Pediatrician-accused-of-receiving-child-porn-charges
2. “Harvard pediatrics professor arrested after police found ‘up to 100 DVDs and 500 images of child porn at his home'” by Rachel Quigley in Daily Mail, September 13, 2012, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2202887/Harvard-pediatrics-director-Richard-Keller-arrested-police-100-DVDs-500-images-child-porn-home.html
8. “Ex-teacher faces child pornography charges” by Colton Campbell in Times-Georgian, July 31, 2012, http://www.times-georgian.com/view/full_story/19628084/article-Ex-teacher-faces-child-pornography-charges
9. Criminal complaint, United States of America v. Josh Ensley, United States District Court, Northern District of Georgia, Case Number: 1:12-MJ-1460, October 25, 2012, http://www.11alive.com/assetpool/documents/121026030425_EnsleyCriminalComplaint.pdf
10. “Defendant’s Particularized Motion to Suppress Evidence and Brief in Support”, United States of America vs. Joseph Monroe Wilson, filed October 5, 2012 in United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9hyw3-Boc65MU1ZSWNwMmlva00
11. United States v. McKelvey (1st Circuit, 2000).
12. United States v. Various Articles of Merchandise (3rd Circuit, 2000).
13. “Detenidas 28 personas e imputadas otras diez en la operación contra la pornografía infantil” in La Vanguardia, December 8, 2012, http://www.lavanguardia.com/sucesos/20121208/54357131037/detenidos-imputados-operacion-contra-pornografia-infantil.html
14. “James Manring, former preschool teacher, pleads guilty to child pornography” in WJLA.com, January 28, 2013, http://www.wjla.com/articles/2013/01/james-manring-former-preschool-teacher-pleads-guilty-to-child-pornography-84565.html
15. “Memorandum in Support of the Motion to Dismiss”, United States of America vs. Gary J. Byrd, filed February 5, 2013 in United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9hyw3-Boc65V1JSdzM5eFJJdDA
16. “Criminal Complaint”, United States of America v. Clifford Eric Perian, filed May 24, 2013 in United States District Court for the District of Colorado, https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9hyw3-Boc65Z0xpRUNJQXAwekk
17. “Child porn bust: Anatomy of an international child pornography investigation” by Robert Cribb, Jennifer Quinn, and Julian Sher in Toronto Star, November 14, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/11/14/child_porn_bust_anatomy_of_an_international_child_pornography_investigation.html
18. “Motion to Dismiss on the Ground that the Statutes the Defendant is Charged with Violating are Unconstitutionally Vague as Applied to Him in this Case”, United States of America vs. Gerald J. Silva, filed October 30, 2013 in United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9hyw3-Boc65SjZwdWFKQUp4d2c
19. “RI probation officer convicted on federal child-pornography charges” by Mike McKinney in Providence Journal, February 11, 2014, http://www.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/content/20140211-ri-probation-officer-convicted-on-federal-child-pornography-charges.ece
20. “Child porn bust: How one man seduced an entire village” by Robert Cribb in Toronto Star, November 16, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/11/16/the_man_who_seduced_a_romanian_village.html
21. “Child Pornography: Victims of Exploitation Struggle to Forget” by Maximilian Popp in Spiegel Online, February 26, 2014, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/exploited-young-romanians-from-azov-films-videos-traumatized-a-955748.html
22. “Ex-teacher sentenced to 90 days for child-porn possession” by Tracy Holmes in Peace Arch News, May 28, 2014, http://www.peacearchnews.com/news/261018571.html
23. “Trial set for former OSP trooper accused of child porn charges” by Kyle Spurr in The Daily Astorian, March 17, 2015, http://www.dailyastorian.com/Local_News/20150317/trial-set-for-former-osp-trooper-accused-of-child-porn-charges
24. Plea agreement of Charles David Compton.
25. “Canada’s biggest child porn case ends with conviction on 15 charges” by Robert Cribb in Toronto Star, May 12, 2015, http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2015/05/12/canadas-biggest-child-porn-case-ends-with-conviction-on-15-charges.html
April 18, 2012 § 7 Comments
The largest controversy in child nude photography aside from pubic close-ups involves spread-legged young girls. An example is Barry Pringle’s black-and-white photograph of a flatchested, hairless preteen girl sitting spread-legged on a chair, facing forward, with one hand on an armrest and the other touching her necklace. She has no article of clothing on her body. The photo is included in Taschen’s book 20th Century Photography by Museum Ludwig Cologne, where she is displayed anonymously. That’s one of the most explicit photos of a little girl in a mainstream publication intended for a general audience.
Graham Ovenden’s black-and-white photo of 10-year-old Maud Hewes sitting with her legs wide apart resulted in a criminal prosecution against an American publisher. As Robert Atkins wrote in The Village Voice, “Hewes’s parted legs are the prosecutorial key to determining lasciviousness.” Publication was allowed to move forward only after the federal government dropped the case, having been convinced it wasn’t intended to be erotic [note 1].
These are supposedly “obscene” and “un-ladylike” postures for girls, and many people are offended by encountering the details of a girl’s labia and the entry to her vagina.
For some reason, however, an open-legged pose is more often accepted for boys than for girls, even when the boy’s penis and scrotum are entirely visible and sharply delineated, as long as the penis remains flaccid. This is a blatantly sexist cultural double-standard.
This doesn’t mean, however, that every government agrees that boys can pose for such photos. I’ve read about prosecutors who launched many cases in the United States, the Netherlands, and other countries against photos of boys who were merely nude without erections.
The Appendix to Karl Andersson’s book Gay Man’s Worst Friend – the Story of Destroyer Magazine (about a magazine that catered mainly to homosexual ephebophiles) includes a 1984 black-and-white photo by boy-lover Donald H. Mader of a young boy named Alexi. Alexi’s sitting outdoors with no clothes on and his legs wide open, exposing his entire penis. He’s got to be only in his early teens and only has a small amount of pubic hair. Mader was prosecuted three times by Dutch authorities over various photos he shot of young boys, most of which the authorities confiscated. This photo may very well have been one of those at question, but I don’t know. Maybe not, since it survived all his investigations, when others were stolen from him and never recovered.
Some of Mader’s other black-and-white photographs of adolescent boys made their way to the exhibition “Soft Core” at Historiska museet (the Museum of History) in Stockholm, Sweden in 1998 [note 2]. Three of the boys showed their genitals, but the poses weren’t risque. Even though they are tame photos, Aftonbladet published an article with quotes by several people condemning the exhibition [note 3]. The article provoked further opposition among the general public. Swedish police decided they couldn’t prosecute anybody for displaying the photos, but the exhibit was raided and destroyed by a mob of Swedish Neo-Nazis.
I’m not denying that males and females anatomically differ, though, and the notion that a female is “un-ladylike” when she opens her legs may be based on those differences:
So in fact an open posture is very ladylike in contexts related to sexuality and its consequences but not in some everyday situations. Still, I don’t see how that renders them an “unnatural pose” for girls, as United States federal courts routinely hold them to be.
Outside of Taschen’s book — which for some reason has received no prosecution or media attention — a Pringle-like photo would not be easy to distribute in Western countries if it showed a girl. Jock Sturges has said that he has to be very careful when he photographs nudist girls these days to ensure that their legs stay together since even though the girls and their parents are comfortable with their bodies and don’t perceive any pose or any body part as offensive, government prosecutors think otherwise. There have been court cases in the United States and other countries where girls’ photos have been successfully prosecuted while the subjects casually posed nude on the beach or sitting on a sofa simply because their legs were apart. This is the last relic of the old-fashioned thinking that used to consign photos of spread-eagle adult women to the status of “obscene” until cultural and political standards changed and magazines began to break through that barrier around 1968 [note 4].
But I can think of a multitude of appropriate situations where a girl would often want or need to open her legs:
A full body spread-leg pose presents more of the model’s character than a pubic close-up as it doesn’t force the viewer to concentrate on only the pubic part of the body when they can also view the child’s head, arms, hands, legs, feet, belly button, chest, and shoulders and sometimes the details of the setting surrounding her. This is certainly the case for Pringle’s photo which has a number of points of interest and fascinating patterns of light and dark.
Jean-Luc Moulène’s photo series “Les Filles d’Amsterdam”, on display in one or more public museums circa 2006-2009, effectively made the point that a full body portrait prevents a purely sexual representation. Although Moulène’s subjects were women prostitutes and they displayed their breasts and their shaved pubic areas while they sat spread-legged, their faces were simultaneously visible, forcing the viewer to realize that it’s a real person and not just a collection of attractive body parts.
Pringle was far from alone in accomplishing this goal. Photos by Bill Henson and Antônio Augusto de Araújo Lima that feature naked pubescent and prepubescent girls with their legs open resemble Moulène’s work as the subjects’ faces and pubic areas are simultaneously visible. Lima’s 10-year-old model “Chelda” posed sitting up just like Moulène’s models. Some of David Hamilton’s and Jacques Bourboulon’s young models also posed in that manner. However, some other Hamilton models covered their faces (with arms or masks) as the females did in Auguste Belloc’s nudes from the 1850s, and Hamilton also made some spread-legged pubic close-ups, mimicking Belloc in yet another way.
Using “sexual intent” as the basis for determining what is or isn’t acceptable doesn’t work because that would exclude quality photographs of young people by the likes of Jock Sturges and Donald Mader who have either had sexual relations with youth or have admitted to being sexually attracted to them. It’s a subjective test that allows somebody who denies any sexual interest in their model to get away with making the exact same type of image that someone who was honest could not. Prosecutors would still bother everybody and pursue pointless cases at considerable expense even in instances where the model insists no harm was done to her.
1. “Lolita Syndrome” by Robert Atkins in The Village Voice, April 14, 1992, http://www.robertatkins.net/beta/shift/culture/censorship/kiddie.html
2. “Det heliga barnet” by Jens Liljestrand in Fotografisk Tidskrift, Nr. 1, 2011, translated into English as “The Sacred Child” at http://scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology/2011/04/is_child_porn_in_the_eye_of_th.php
3. “Konst – eller barnporr?” by Anders Johansson in Aftonbladet, May 31, 1998, http://wwwc.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/9805/31/konst.html
4. The most common magazines like Playboy waited several more years to do it and once they did they competed with each other to see who could show pubic areas most explicitly, with Playboy warring with the likes of Penthouse, Hustler, and Club.
January 16, 2012 § 2 Comments
Sally Mann’s Perfect Tomato was one of the photos shown in the exhibition Intimacies held September 9 through October 22, 2011 at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago [note 1]. Shot in black-and-white in 1990 in Virginia, it’s an example of a completely innocent photo of a naked little girl: Sally’s daughter Jessie. She was born in 1981 so she was either 8 or 9 at the time the photo was shot. Her arms are outstretched and she’s tiptoeing on a table with some tomatoes on it. Her flat chest and hairless pubic area are visible from the side. The bright light of the right side of the photo contrasts with the darkness to the left.
The exhibition didn’t focus on children, but other youths were depicted on some of the other photos.
There is a clear contrast between the innocence of Perfect Tomato and the eroticism of Venus After School, the Sally Mann photo displayed in the exhibition The Female Gaze: Women Look At Women at Cheim & Read in New York City from June 25, 2009 to September 19, 2009. Venus After School shows Jessie two years later, in 1992, but her naked body was still prepubescent at that time and the photo is likewise in black-and-white. She’s reclining on a couch while she looks at the camera and her left hand is at her pubic area.
The photo is a modern photographic representation of three oil paintings: Sleeping Venus by Giorgione from 1510 (the original inspiration), The Venus of Urbino by Titian from 1538, and Olympia by Manet (1863). Jessie’s hand is positioned more like Venus’s than Olympia’s. The paintings are widely acknowledged to be erotic in nature and possibly suggestive of masturbation, and Olympia’s status was depicted as being that of a prostitute.
The Female Gaze on the whole was quite a bit more erotic than Intimacies, the former containing paintings, sculptures, and photos by other artists, some of which show older people nude, kissing, masturbating, and even having sexual intercourse.
Susan Edwards, a professor at the University of Buckingham, gave Venus After School as an example of a work that “straddled the boundaries of what is currently considered the threshold of child pornography” [note 2].
In my opinion, Professor Amy Adler was correct to ask on the New York University course outline for the Art Law course she taught in Fall 2006, as Part One: Art and the 1st Amendment [note 3]:
“Is Sally Mann’s work child pornography?
Apply Dost factors to “Venus After School”
Photo of Jessie lying naked on a couch, reminiscent of art poses
Self-conscious allusion to Manet’s Olympia, which itself alluded to Titian’s Venus of Urbino – so clearly working in an art history tradition
(1) Jessie’s hand is drawing the viewer to her genitals – so arguably the focal point
Her genitals aren’t discernible though
Knox court said you can has [sic: have] a lascivious exhibition of genitals even if they aren’t visible
(2) Jessie is lying on a couch / day bed – so could be usually associated with sexual activity
But also a fairly common place to find a child
(3) She is reclining – but maybe not an unnatural pose in that growing up as a girl is about taking on a series of “unnatural poses””
Adler goes on to discuss whether it was made to provoke thoughts of sexual desire in the people looking at Jessie (even though Sally insisted she doesn’t want to do that: “I don’t think of my children, and I don’t think anyone else should think of them, with any sexual thoughts.” [note 4]). Adler described the paintings on which it was based as “sexual artworks (that were regarded as a sort of porn in their own time)”.
Adler’s conclusion is “Based on Dost, Mann’s work would probably be considered child porn (in the absence of an exception for serious artistic value)” and “the only reason Mann isn’t in jail is prosecutorial discretion”.
Sally once said, “I think childhood sexuality is an oxymoron.” [note 4] But some sexuality researchers and art critics say it’s something very real. Malcolm Jones Jr. was one of them, writing:
“It’s the same in the many pictures where the children are nude. They are disturbing images, and they are meant to be. With their waif-white skin against chiaroscuro shadows, the children look Victorian—but their eyes say something else. They know, and they know we know, that they’re sexual creatures.” [note 5]
If they are sexual creatures (to a degree, anyway), should the law allow photos of them masturbating (or seeming to) to be made, and do their photos belong in an exhibition like The Female Gaze where imaginary adults have sex?
If prepubescent children were allowed to be portrayed masturbating, up to and including the level of explicitness seen with a girl in Will McBride’s book Show Me! and a boy in Edgard Navarro’s film Eu Me Lembro, that would put power back in the hands of the child and the photographer, wresting it away from judges and juries who don’t know the child on a personal basis. As Jones wrote, Sally’s kids had free will and knowingly posed for the camera:
“People upset over these pictures have accused Mann of exploiting her own children. But in the photographs, it is clear the children aren’t puppets; Mann captures their gumption and independence.” [note 5]
Also, not all photos that Sally shot got released to the public. Little Virginia was photographed urinating before she was 8 but she asked Sally not to publish that photo in Immediate Family so she didn’t [note 4]. That must mean that gallery visitors see Virginia’s older sister posing like Venus only because she wants them to.
Innocent and erotic: these are the two sides of Sally Mann’s works. For someone who purported to portray her children innocently without reference to sexuality, the photograph Venus After School doesn’t fit into that pattern.
2. “Discourses of Denial and Moral Panics: The Pornographisation of the Child in Art, the Written Word, Film and Photograph” by Susan Edwards in Behaving Badly: Social Panic and Moral Outrage – Victorian and Modern Parallels edited by Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson (Ashgate, 2003), page 185.
3. The outline is in a document housed at http://www.law.nyu.edu
4. “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann” by Richard B. Woodward in New York Times Magazine, September 27, 1992, Section 6, on page 52, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/27/magazine/the-disturbing-photography-of-sally-mann.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm Woodward also noted that Sally was herself a nude child model. Sally’s father, Robert Munger, was her photographer. She wasn’t that thrilled with the results of her father’s work, however, and must be happy that none of the photos are out there for public consumption. Different kids can make different choices about who they want to show their photos to and in what contexts.
5. “All in the Family” by Malcolm Jones Jr. in Newsweek, October 26, 1992, on page 61, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/1992/10/26/all-in-the-family.html The print edition of the article begins with a photograph of Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia Mann all standing shirtless, and Virginia’s flat chest and nipples can be seen. The caption calls them “Defiantly self-assured children” (page 60).