Controversies Shown in Prague in 2011

January 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography was an exhibition held at Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague in the Czech Republic from September 8, 2011 until November 13, 2011. The Musée de l’Elysée of Lausanne, France organized it. Some of the photographs displayed involve children.

In 1975, the American photographer Garry Gross photographed 9 or 10 year old Brooke Shields naked in numerous non-explicit poses. The photo displayed in this exhibition showed her standing full-frontally nude in a bathtub. Shields became bitter about how Gross was trying to profit from her fame in the wake of the success of her movie career – even though he had the right to do so because the contract Brooke’s mother signed in 1975 gave all rights to the photos to him, as later court decisions affirmed. The UK’s Star magazine quoted Brooke’s interview from Easy Living magazine:

“My kids walk around naked all the time, and I was nine – I wasn’t uncomfortable doing it [posing nude for photographs]. When I was 16, I wouldn’t have done it. That guy [Garry Gross] waited until I was 16 before he decided to publish it – he tried to take this famous person [me] and sell her out.” [note 1]

In reality, Gross did not wait until 1981 – she turned 16 in 1981 – before he published them. Some of these nudes appeared between the pages of the book Sugar and Spice: Surprising and Sensuous Images of Women in 1976 and the French edition of PHOTO magazine in July 1978. Maybe she’s forgotten those things? Shields’s words contain a half-truth, though: the entire series was published (poster-size!) and advertised by Gross in the early 1980s as The Woman in the Child. Another discrepancy is how most other sources claim she was 10 when the photos were made [note 2], yet here she claimed she was 9. At this time, I don’t know the month and day during 1975 when the photos were shot. She was 9 before May 31st of that year.

Jock Sturges was another of the American photographers included. The gallery showed his group photo of three young girls (Christina, Misty, and Alisa) posing without clothes in northern California in 1989. The girl on the right side exposed her pubic area while she stood. The photo was included in the context of his legal battle with the U.S. Justice Department in 1990.

Graham Ovenden, an English photographer of children, was represented by a photo he took of Maud Hewes, age 10, in 1984. The photo here was the one that was prosecuted in federal court in the United States in the early 1990s showing her seated nude with her legs open. The girl herself, now an adult, defended Ovenden in writing and that was part of the reason the government gave up trying to claim the photos were “lascivious”. The issue of spread-legged underage girls is the focus of a blog entry I wrote after this one.

Irina Ionesco, a transplanted Romanian living in France, made a series of photographs in Palais Mucha in Prague back when it was part of unified Czechoslovakia. At least one of them showed a nude woman. Another showed her daughter Eva baring a nipple as a child while she reclined on a table and stared at the camera; this photo was offered up for auction on November 5, 2008 by Be-Hold in Yonkers, New York as Lot 133. That may be the photo of Eva they chose for the exhibition, but again it might be another one shot that day or week. While the exhibition’s printed guide claimed Eva’s photo dates from 1970 (which would mean she was 5 when it was shot), in fact the Palais Mucha series dates from 1974 which accords with the fact that she looks older than she did at 5.

Annalies Štrba, also from continental Europe (Switzerland), made a photo titled “Sonja in her Bath” showing her daughter Sonja full-frontally nude (partly under the surface of the water) as an adolescent. The exhibition’s printed guide claimed the photo was shot in 1985 but other dates are sometimes given in other sources, but every source agrees that she was under 18 at the time and the girl herself has said she was 16 [note 3]. The photo had been displayed inside the Rhodes + Mann gallery in east London, England in December 2002. A complaint prompted the Crown Prosecution Service to consider charges against the gallery [note 4]. From what I’ve gathered, charges were never officially filed against either the gallery or Štrba.

As there are no sexual acts in the aforementioned photos, the prosecutions and threatened prosecutions reflect merely a discomfort with portrayals of the bodies of youths, especially when photos acknowledge that they have reproductive organs and pubic hair.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo in the exhibition did not portray a child but himself as an adult. I don’t know what Larry Clark’s 1970 photo depicted.

Notes
1. “Shields opens up about underage nude photo” in Star, April 21, 2010, http://www.star-magazine.co.uk/posts/view/19535/Shields-opens-up-about-underage-nude-photo/
2. For instance, “Garry Gross Is Dead at 73; Photographer of Clothes and Their Absence” by Dennis Hevesi in The New York Times, December 7, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/arts/design/07gross.html mentioned “controversial photos of an unclothed 10-year-old Brooke Shields”, and “American Idols” by Maura Egan in Departures, September 2007, http://www.departures.com/articles/american-idols referred to “ten-year-old, pre–Pretty Baby Brooke Shields glistening nude in a bathtub.”
3. “Bath girl blasts ‘pornography’ charge” by Danielle Demetriou in The Evening Standard, December 19, 2002.
4. “Gallery faces prosecution over picture of a girl in the bath by Fiachra Gibbons in The Guardian, December 18, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/dec/18/arts.childprotection

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§ One Response to Controversies Shown in Prague in 2011

  • Ron says:

    I know artists, dealer and collectors are trying to be pragmatic by appealing to the law to justify what they are doing. That is fine as far as it goes, but as the law is only as good as the people that make it, there needs to be a sound moral basis that inspired a healthier kind of law. Ultimately, the concern should be the conditions under which the art was produced. I was pleased to see that proponents of young girl art were not just showing the good sides in a knee-jerk defense of our interest, but that there are some unresolved ethical issues. I am referring to the Ionesco situation in which it appears Irina is being obstinate in her artistic vision disregarding a kind of motherly respect for her daughter. A number of my associates do not particularly like the work except that it is an acknowledged part of the genre and this latest revelation is telling. The Gross photos of Brooke is more complicated because it is hard to judge whether she objects to the photos because of her experience or because of current public image. I don’t necessarily think that the latest court decision makes everything OK. I get the same kind of eerie feeling viewing some of her photo as I did of Eva. Let us access our compassion and take a real look of what this is about, the law notwithstanding. I have my own opinion on this, but I think it better if each person gives this serious consideration without undue bias.

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