Nude Youngsters Opened Their Legs for Ellen Brooks
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).