Young Bodies – part 1

The notion of photographing children at a time when the idea of ‘correctness’ has such an emphasis placed upon it presents the photographer with a challenge where every detail of the photographs can be closely scrutinised. Perhaps it could be argued that such legality is an unnecessary nuisance and an unreasonable barrier on the artist. The photographers whose work is to be discussed in this publication have all been the subject of dispute over the rights and wrongs of photographing children. This essay has been written to address this subject; it will do so by examining what art is and why it is made, what it means to be naked and why it is depicted by the artist. Of our three photographers Sally Mann (b.1951) is perhaps the best known and without a doubt her most recognisable collection was Immediate Family published in 1992. Jock Sturges (b.1947) is well known for his pictures of nudists, many of whom are adolescents and David Hamilton (b.1933) is recognised as one of the most commercially successful photographers alive today due to his photographs of young girls. All these photographers have either made or continue to make children and adolescents the central focus of their ongoing work. By examining their work using the criteria here before laid down we can determine whether or not their pictures can be considered acceptable.

Image Copyright © Sally Mann

Typically Mann’s images explore childhood themes such as the games her children play whilst staying at the family’s summer cabin on the banks of a river. The setting is idyllic and the word setting must be used rather than location because despite the pictures natural look, which may or may not have been the photographer’s intention, there are signs that many of them have been carefully considered and composed. The reason this point is so important is that it raises a valid question; if such time and care went into the making of these pictures how real is their depiction of Mann’s children. These pictures can easily be viewed as a photographic essay recording the lives of these three children but Sally Mann regards herself as an artist, so whilst we may wish to consider them natural through the eyes of a mother the question remains; do they have to be naked? One picture in particular found within the pages of Immediate Family raises an important question. The picture is of a young boy, probably no older than ten years. The child is looking directly at the camera, there is no smile on his face and he adopts a stance as though he were an animal about to bolt away from a would be predator; to dive into the dark waters and swim out of sight.

Image Copyright © Sally Mann

What is interesting about this picture is its title; the last time Emmett modelled nude. From this are we to believe that the boy was asked to undress specifically for this picture? If this is the case then there must have been reasons for doing so and how are the public supposed to read the image? Mann’s pictures attracted a great deal of praise from art critics but the images also spawned criticism. Upon its release the book caused a great deal of controversy with some activists calling it child pornography. Kiku Adatto, the director of child studies at Harvard wrote of Immediate Family that Mann photographed ‘her own young children nude in erotic poses, or posed as victims of abuse and incest’.   

Image Copyright © Jock Sturges

An image that bears striking similarities to the previous can be found within the pages of Sturges’ book The Last Day of Summer. This time a young girl is pictured and although we are not told it can be supposed that she is approximately the same age as Emmett. From the way the light has been used it could be said that both pictures are almost identical and perhaps one drew inspiration from the other but the differences are in the stance of the subject. There is no evident pose and no pulled face. There is only a child standing in a river, her arms at her side with her shoulders held ever so slightly back so as if to exaggerate her nakedness.

Whilst both Emmett and this girl show us no smile the expression of character the boy reveals through his lowered eyebrows and pursed lips is lacking in this picture. Indeed the face of this child is altogether expressionless. Here is a picture that is very much about the body of the subject. This makes it one of the finest examples of images that display limitations. The viewer is left with questions rather than answers and their interpretation of the image is far more reaching. It raises questions about morality and nakedness and the conclusions people reach will each be effected by who they are as individuals.

Misunderstandings of what Sturges is trying to represent is as easy as misunderstanding what nakedness means. To be naked is to be oneself; the casting off of coverings that disguises the truth. To be nude is to be seen as naked by others but only as an object of desire. Concerning Sturges’ work this presents the viewer with a conundrum. His subjects are naturists and so display their nakedness as being themselves but for the viewer to see the images as an offence they would have to view them as nudes and so would be seeing them as objects rather than people. With this in mind it must be considered; are critics offended by what they see or are they offended by what they perceive the photograph to represent.

Considering this we can perhaps begin to understand the decisions of the individual photographers as to why they have decided on a subject without clothing. All of these pictures challenge the viewer in their own way, whether it be by displaying an alternative image of what childhood is or by offering an unorthodox interpretation of what becoming an adult means.

Mann approaches the subject by offering a realistic and gritty image of children that for many would go against the idealistic view of youth that family photo albums represent and despite their natural appearance many of them are fictions of her creation which may or may not apply to her children.

Image Copyright © Sally Mann

The pictures document the emergence of adult behaviour as much as they display childhood antics and with the book being made over a number of years we are given the opportunity to watch the children grow and develop in a way that the images of our other featured photographers do not. Candy Cigarette may have been carefully composed but it represents a significant change in a child’s life. Here Jessie is pictured holding what may be mistaken for a cigarette if it were not for the title. She holds it as if it were one for in her minds eye it is. Suddenly this sweet treat becomes a tool of rebellion. She is rebelling against the adults she has always been taught to respect.

Her eyes connect with the viewer to make this rebellion as much against them as against her parents and suddenly without knowing it she has commenced her own journey to becoming an adult. Sturges and Hamilton take a different approach and in both artists work the emergence of sexuality can clearly be seen. Sturges does not shy away from addressing this subject in some of his pictures.

Several images show glimpses of children expressing curiosity in each others bodies and in an image of two young boys holding hands we see what may be the photographers wish to photograph the emergence of homosexuality. Holding hands is not a classic trait of any boy and given that all the pictures in Sturges’ books are posed we have to conclude that this action was at the request of the photographer.

David Hamilton places a much more erotic view on the subject. Naturally his work has been the subject of much debate but despite harsh criticism Hamilton continues to produce books at a rate of almost one per year since his 1971 Dreams of a Young Girl, which featured in an exhibition of the same year at the Photographers Gallery entitled Four Masters of Erotic Photography. His pictures are deeply rooted in early romantic examples of art. Well known paintings such as Sleeping Venus by the Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione (1477-1510) is just one example of work that depicted women in the positions that Hamilton’s models assume.

The painting was one of Giorgione’s last works and was completed in 1510 shortly after his death. It is now generally accepted that the landscape and sky were painted by the artist Tiziano Vecellio (1488-1576), better known as Titan whose own painting, Venus of Urbino is strikingly similar.

Giorgione seems to have taken great care when painting his Sleeping Venus. The connection between the shape of the woman’s body and the landscape speak of their relationship as being natural, organic objects. The principle spectator of such images was always assumed to be the man therefore it would be for this audience that the artist would paint. For men the landscape has always been an object of possession and so the women of these paintings immediately became objects of the same kind.  

Due to their similarities this is repeated in Titans painting; Venus loosely clutches a posy of flowers in her right hand. The presence of the flowers is important in a way that may go by unnoticed today. Being red roses they symbolize love and passion but were also considered to be symbolic of the Virgin Mary and so what at first appears to be little more than a handful of plants suddenly becomes a provocation of sexuality; the young woman arrayed in all her natural beauty, her eyes staring directly at the viewer as if unconcerned with her nudity. She is passionate and yet she is also a virgin and as such becomes the object of mans desire, an object that is waiting to be possessed. This is made all the more obvious by the erotic underlying of both paintings; the right arms being held back to expose the breasts and left hand resting provocatively over the vulva which in both cases dominates centre frame.

This romantic way of seeing is recreated in Hamilton’s pictures. Classical poses such as these are not an uncommon sight in many photographs of this nature but is it ethical to apply them to children? What one must consider is the changing nature of what is acceptable. The days of Giorgione and Titan have long since passed and with them their opinions on how people should be depicted. Views on women are one example. The accepted idea of the woman as the subservient figure to man no longer prevails just as the strict morel guidelines concerning children that did not exist then exist today. In this sense surely the romanticised image Hamilton produces has a narrower audience?

In this next photograph we behold the very obvious characteristics of the erotic image; raised arms that that fall back behind the flower adorned head to reveal the body which is cast in seductive light and thoughtfully contrasted against the pale background. However there are more subtle details which we will often subconsciously interpret. The flowers have likely been placed upon her head to emphasis the innocence of the girl and to display her connection to childish things.

Image Copyright © David Hamilton

 This helps to reinforce our understanding of her age and with this in mind we make the association to virginity. It is also important to note that none of Hamilton’s pictures are captioned with the names of the models. Indeed the models remain nameless throughout. Is this not strikingly similar to the two paintings that we have just studied? European art produced many different examples of these types of paintings and the perhaps the most reproduced figure in the genre was Venus. It became the name for the nameless woman and the label for the object of sexual fantasy. By denying the spectator the name of the model Hamilton is presenting us with Venus; the object of sexual desire.

(To be continued).

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  1. #1 by Art Blogger on January 2, 2011 - 6:59 am

    The situation is more complex than you indicate since

    1. Sally Mann once photographed her daughter Jessie naked in exactly the same position as the woman in the painting Venus of Urbino.

    2. David Hamilton named his models in one of his other books, Private Collection.

    Nevertheless, Mann usually didn’t have her models in erotic poses and Hamilton usually didn’t name the models, so your entry remains fairly spot-on.

    It may also be of interest that Sturges photographed other young people holding hands: I recall seeing a boy holding a girl’s hand (I’m not sure of their names at this time), and two girls (Estelle and Mylène) touched each others’ hands in a 1994 photo.

    A much more recent controversy involves Frank Cordelle’s photos of nude young girls. Since Mann, Hamilton, and Sturges are the same names one typically encounters in such discussions, an exploration of Cordelle’s work would add breadth if you feel it should be mentioned in part 2 of your series.

  2. #2 by Daniel Lewis on January 4, 2011 - 3:46 pm

    Yes the situation is more complex than indicated. In all honesty I don’t think it is possible to cover every aspect of this topic in a single text. What I intend to do is provide a means by which these pictures and others like them can be analysed and understood.

    You are correct; Mann did photograph Jesse in the same position as the Venus of Urbino. However with the pictures of her children she creates a set of fictions that documents the transition from childhood to adulthood. Personally I do not see this as being erotic, perhaps a parody of a well known painting.

    With Hamilton, he professes to picture that same transition and whilst it cannot be denied that adolescence is a time of sexual discovery it is a personal event that affects individuals in more ways than one. Despite claiming to photograph this personal transition he eroticises his models utilising techniques that go beyond simply withholding names.

    Thank you for your comment!

  3. #3 by Clara Decato on January 13, 2011 - 9:52 am

    Usually I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this article really forced me to do so! Thanks, really nice article.

  4. #4 by fc on September 2, 2011 - 9:52 pm

    i think you’re full of you know what. onlyIF you are an AMERICAN straight man of a certain age, would the idea that two boys holding hands be anything but that. everywhere throughout the world, boys AND men hold hands, hold each other with hands tightly bound around their waists, or one rests his head upon the other’s shoulder; all in complete innocence and borne out of affection.

    only here in this rapidly cratering “world “power; the USA) is the idea of two boys holding hands seen or even described in such a stupid manner, no matter the context of where its described.

    when i came home from an extended trip abroad i india and italy, as a gay man, i was stunned by the profound display of the energetic stiffness, hardness and armor-like energy emanating off of every boy and man. it was as if men and boys are demanded to be shells of human beings, walking alone on the earth, with no right to express anything but the most ridiculous and EXTREME stances of so-called masculinity.

    well, guess what, straight men/gay men/MEN and BOYS love one another and have every right to express their feelings towards one another in any way they like; just as women and girls are free to do, and then some.

    whoever doesn’t like that, can go straight to he++ in my book, and culturally, thankfully, since that trip home, in many more young and older men’s minds as displayed through their actions.

    • #5 by Daniel Lewis on September 4, 2011 - 5:08 pm

      Thank you for your comment, I would like the chance to respond to what you have said. Firstly I would like to say that I consider there to be nothing wrong with the act of two young boys holding hands. My suggestion was that in the context of Jock Sturges on-going work, which features the photographs of young people as they age, there could be suggestion here of a maturing affection. After all, affection at that age is the basis for sexual discovery. This is a topic that few seem willing to address and it is a shame because it has led to a stigma within our society, much like the one you observed when you returned from India and Italy. I do not doubt the innocence of such boys and I must stress that our understanding of sexual desire and the feelings that we as adults have for others cannot be confused with how children feel for each other and how they “learn” to be adults. What I hope you understand is that these photographs must be understood in context of each other and in the purposed aim of the text, which was to establish whether or not these images had been made with wrongful intent. There are seldom any real suggestions of sexual discovery in Jock Sturges work, and so this one deserved special attention. I would like to remind you that these photographs were made under the direction of the photographer and so what you see might not be the natural action of the subjects but rather the request of the artist. In this case his direction is a response to a social model of how boys should behave, the response being his ignorance of it. I find these ideas of masculinity and femininity very interesting, particularly the way in which they are represented in the United States. As a nation whose influence over the world social model is reinforced by its dominance over popular culture what is most interesting is that the artist is American and therefore a contradiction to the American man that you describe.

      I can understand that this is a topic which you feel strongly about but my aim was never to promote any social view of male behaviour. What I hope this text achieved was to establish how photographs can be understood to be of innocent or malicious intent. This can only be done by examination of those models of social behaviour; they exist and are ignorantly accepted, and have been for hundreds of years. Without considering them we are blind to any hope of understanding what is ultimately a very important issue, one that I hold to be far more important than the individual grief and complaints of the emotional and the ignorant. I hope that this has been useful. If you have any questions or observations I would encourage you to reply. I would like to end by saying that I am not American.

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