Young Bodies – part 2

We have already established the differences between nakedness and nudity but now we must ask ourselves what it means to depict these in art. Our photographers all attempt to comment on the growth and development of children but to what end? This can only be answered if one establishes how the child’s body is displayed to us. Are they only expressing themselves through their nakedness or are they offered as a nude where their body becomes an object of nakedness for our pleasure and satisfaction? It is the photographer that has the responsibility to distinguish between the two for either he photographs with an intention to provoke sexual desire or he does not.

The social habit of humans is to establish how well one relates to another. This may be on a purely mutual basis although when confronted with the naked body of another the tendency is to ignore that persons characteristics and focus on what the eye can see. The sexual function of nakedness is such that it has a positive visual value in its own right; we want to see the other naked. Therefore it becomes very difficult to photograph nakedness. In the few cases where the artist achieves this it is because there is no room in the picture for the spectator. As an onlooker he is able to recognize beauty but cannot help but feel isolated from it, as if it were in a world far removed from his own. What a picture of this nature requires is the introduction of banality. Elements of familiarity and predictability are given to outweigh those of the forbidden and mysterious.

Image Copyright © Jock Sturges

If we accept this as truth then Sturges’ pictures cannot be seen as being provocative. By photographing naturists the spectator is brought to a realisation that they are naked for themselves and not for his pleasure or as a means of gratifying his curiosity. He beholds the image of a group of girls sprawled across the sand and recognises their beauty but it is not their youth that isolates him from this group. Rather it is their lifestyle which produces banality and establishes a sense of reality.

With this understanding we can now begin to distinguish between the work of Sturges and Hamilton; if Sturges photographs the naked then Hamilton pictures the nude. In his pictures we behold the mysterious and forbidden; young girls beginning to realise the changes in their body and perhaps exploring these changes for the first time. By this the pictures are made to appeal to the sexuality of the spectator and have nothing to do with the sexuality of the model. They are made to arouse and if ever there is any doubt as to whether or not this is true his books provide us with helpfully erotic quotations that accompany each image to reinforce this:

“I undressed to climb a tree; my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark; my sandals climbed upon the branches. High up, but still beneath the leaves and shaded from the heat, I straddled a wide-spread fork and swung my feet into the void. It had rained. Drops of water fell and flowed upon my skin. My hands were soiled with moss and my heels were reddened by the crushed blossoms. I felt the lovely tree living when the wind passed through it; so I locked my legs tighter, and crushed my open lips to the hairy nape of a bough.” (Pierre Louys)

Image Copyright © David Hamilton

 The composition of this picture and the nature of the quoted poem that it appears next to lead us to conclude that the image was specifically made to illustrate this text. One does not need to delve too deeply into the picture as Louys (1870-1925) describes it with far more authority than anyone else could. However this photograph, as a visual tribute to the poem fulfils the same function which is to excite. The combination of picture and poem when viewed by the male spectator allow him a window into a fantasy land where he becomes the tree on which the girl pleasures herself. This window which allows the viewer to identify with someone or something within the picture is a common characteristic of any erotic or pornographic image and stands in contrast to the work of Sturges here before discussed.

With this in mind we can ask ourselves is it ethical to portray children in this way. To answer this it is important to understand the reasons as to why art is made. Like anything else it is made to be possessed but its purpose is not practical, rather it is for the gratification of the owner. He looks to the artist to present him with all that he finds beautiful and to place within his easy reach those things to which he is attached. Given the sexual nature of the pictures we can conclude that it is Hamilton’s wish to present his collectors with girls who are misrepresented as objects to be possessed, even though they have not yet reached an age of full development. Possible implications of this will be that pictures are being produced to provide pleasure to those who take sexual gratification from children. 

Despite the changes in art that have happened over hundreds of years we have seen that there exist some aspects that have remained very much the same as they were when painters of the past first put brush to canvas. This may only be the purpose of art in that it is something to be possessed for the pleasure of the collector but even if art itself refuses to change it cannot be denied that what is considered to be acceptable has moved forward dramatically. It is only by these standards that we can judge what is acceptable and what is not.

The work of Sally Mann offers the spectator an alternative from the smiling faces of the family photo album. In her pictures we see three children living as all children do and despite many of them being carefully thought out fictions they display a sense of reality not found in the work of Sturges or Hamilton. By this the images tell the story of all children as much as they do about Mann’s.    

The work of Sally Mann offers the spectator an alternative from the smiling faces of the family photo album. In her pictures we see three children living as all children do and despite many of them being carefully thought out fictions they display a sense of reality not found in the work of Sturges or Hamilton. By this the images tell the story of all children as much as they do about Mann’s.    

David Hamilton represents the opposite; his pictures apply the same techniques that have been used for hundreds of years to romanticise youth. Within them he presents us with an object rather than a person and so those he professes to represent are ignored for who they are and instead become a possession to provide gratification for the collector.  

Today the values that people hold vary so greatly that the arguments herein presented may never be resolved however the debates that surround the work of our selected photographers have gone a long way to affirm art historian Anne Higonnet’s conclusion that ‘No subject is as publicly dangerous now as the subject of the child’s body’.       

 References

  1. BERGER, J. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.
  2. ELLIS, A. 1984. Much Worse To Come Home To. The British Journal of Photography, 131 (34), p. 901.
  3. MAVOR, C. 1996. Pleasures Taken: Performance of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. London: IB Tauris.
  4. PARKER, R. & POLLOCK, G. 1987. Framing feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970 – 1985. London: Pandora Press.
  5. PARSONS, S. 2008. Public/Private Tensions in the Photography of Sally Mann. History of Photography. 32 (2), pp. 123 – 136.

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  1. #1 by Henrietta Phearsdorf on January 12, 2011 - 2:21 am

    What i find difficult is to find a blog that can capture me for a minute but you definitely add value. Keep it like this.

  2. #2 by Alex B. (@AlexB244) on April 10, 2012 - 6:30 pm

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