Spread-Legged Young Girls Remain Contentious

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:

  • The angles of the upper leg bones of males and females differ. Females have a more pronounced inward slant to their upper legs, making their knees touch each other naturally when they sit, unlike with males. Most females prefer to sit cross-legged or with both legs completely touching all the way down to their feet, rather than open-legged, to feel physically comfortable and to preserve their modesty if they’re wearing a skirt.
  • An “open” posture is usually necessary for females to engage in the act of frontal vaginal intercourse and is therefore associated with it, whereas men don’t need to spread their legs to have sex.
  • Apart from male gymnasts, most males find it difficult to extend their legs all the way apart without injury, in contrast to females. It is, after, all necessary for women to open up when they give birth through the vagina.

    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:

  • cartwheels (The prepubescent 10-year-old Isabella Nightingale performed cartwheels in the nude in her British movie The Spy Who Caught A Cold and in so doing briefly displayed her genitals explicitly)
  • gymnastics
  • sitting on exercise equipment (PureNudism.com, an American site, includes photos of girl children with their legs open while they sit on leg-training equipment in a fitness room)
  • ballet (especially the famous pose where one leg is extended straight out while the other leg is flat to the floor)
  • yoga and meditation (especially when sitting cross-legged)
  • aerobic exercising
  • dancing with leg kicks up in the air
  • swimming with kicking motions (as Jenny Agutter did at the age of 16 in the movie Walkabout and Phoebe Cates did at 17 in Paradise, both while nude)
  • riding a horse
  • sitting “Indian-style” on the floor or ground
  • climbing a ladder
  • as well as numerous situations in everyday life where one needs to sit (for example, two naked little girls in the movie Madita – Du är inte klok Madicken sat forward in a chair while they opened their legs to put on their socks)

    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.

  • 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.

    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

    Controversial Nudes Displayed in Holland

    April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

    Galerie ‘t Fotokabinet in Den Haag in South Holland held an exhibition called Controversial Nudes from October 19, 2008 to November 30, 2008.

    One of the photos on display came from Will McBride’s book Show Me! A Picture Book of Sex for Children and Parents: a 13-year-old adolescent girl lies full-frontally nude sideways on the floor while a teenage boy with an exposed penis hovers above her. This is presented in black-and-white.

    Another black-and-white photo was shot by Irina Ionesco in 1975 in her usual erotic style. It’s a seated portrait of her daughter Eva at the age of 8 or 9. Her largely exposed body confronts the viewer. Both of her little breasts are bared and her legs are open wide. Her pubic area is only partly obscured by an accessory so the sides of her pubic mound are visible.

    Also exhibited were photos of topless young girls by Graham Ovenden and the vintage two-man team Lehnert & Landrock.

    The main reason these photos are considered controversial is because of the subjects’ tender ages. In Ionesco’s case it’s also debated whether it was appropriate that she photographed her own daughter in suggestive ways, and Lehnert & Landrock are occasionally criticized for having made nude postcards of North African girls and women under the excuse of anthropological research.

    The nudes of adults by Helmut Newton, Terry Richardson, Jan Saudek, and Nobuyoshi Araki are controversial for reasons that go beyond the scope of this blog.

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