The Remoteness that Betrays Desire
Times Literary Supplement, 1997
6 Pages Posted: 16 May 2006
This 1997 review in the Times Literary Supplement covered the then, as now, incendiary issue of the nude photography of children and adolescents. It reviewed photobooks by two leading photographers of children in the nude, Jock Sturges and David Hamilton. Sturges, an American, photographed mainly on nude beaches in France and Europe, often following the same families and children for years on end; he had been indicted on child pornography charges in the 1908s, although the jury took only a few minutes to find for him. Hamilton, British, has photographed in France and in various islands. The photography of child and adolescent nudes is contrasted with Michael Graffenried's photography of older adults in long-standing European nudist and sun-worshipping camps, and with Laura Kipnis' argument that the regulation of pornography in America has a firm class basis (this argument has received its most famous airing in Judge Richard Posner's famous - and overturned - opinion invalidating regulations against nude exotic dancing in strip clubs that nonetheless made exceptions for artistic nude expression in the dance department of the local university).
The review argues that the intense anxiety over the nude photography of children is a result of the religious right and the authoritarian left in America having 'sacralized' childhood as the last transcendental object. Even to make a photograph of a nude child is to profane it. The review asks why this is.
This anxiety - legal as well as aesthetic - emerges in Sturges' work in the extreme formality of his portraits - his use of a box camera requiring considerable time to obtain an image in particular. Yet ultimately, the review argues, Sturges accepts a conventional definition of female beauty - and his apparently formal aetheticism actually conceals a striking romanticism. Hamilton - less worried about legal action than the American Sturges - is far more explicitly erotic in his compositions, but while individual photographs are sometimes arresting, taken together, it is all slightly vulgar (it has been remarked of Hamilton's work that the Americans think it criminal child porn, the British think it embarrassingly smutty, and the French, who publish most of his work, consider it art). The review questions whether the sacralization of childhood is such a good thing - childhood and adolescent are in fact far more ambiguous than either the American religious right or the authoritarian liberal-left would make them out to be, and the pressure to treat them as the last sacred and transcendental objects is ultimately an unsustainable romanticism.
Keywords: Jock Sturges, David Hamilton, Laura Kipnis, Richard Posner, photography, pornography, child pornography, religious right, nudism, romanticism, aesthetics, obscenity, obscene, autonomny, secular, sacred, religion
JEL Classification: K10, K30, Z10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation