[Home]     [Up]     [Articles & Essays] 

Conclusions Based on Observation

Anne Higonnet

The Yale Journal of criticism, 9.1, 1996

In January 1995, a long child pornography case finally ended. Knox v. United States had bounced from the District Court of Pennsylvania to an Appeals Court to the Supreme Court and back again to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, after which the Supreme Court refused to hear it again. The vicissitudes of the case magnified Knox into a national debate over child pornography. By the time it had ended, Knox had altered First Amendment free speech law, enflamed public opinion, pitted virtually the entire Congress against the Justice Department, and launched child pornography into the 1994 Republican "Contract With America" alongside issues such as welfare and the national deficit. Meanwhile, Knox let images of children, and potentially all images, slip from the category of "speech" protected by the First Amendment into the unprotected category of "action."

Childhood has become sacrosanct. Americans place a high value on childhood not only because we care about how actual adults treat actual children, but also because we freight childhood so heavily with ideals. Once upon a time, the values of innocence, purity, and nature could be variously located. Now we only seem able to find them in what we imagine to be the beleaguered bastion of childhood. If natural pure innocence is equated with a complete absence of sexuality--as it commonly is now in the United States--then sexual abuse of children violates the ultimate social taboo. From there it takes one step to blame child pornography. And one step more to censorship. Two dangerous steps.

Our current cultural climate made Knox an accident waiting to happen. Scandalous Calvin Klein ads and FBI stings of Internet offenders are only the latest manifestations of a growing national obsession with images of children. For years, Americans have been becoming increasingly sure that they can and should interpret images of children, distinguish right images from wrong images, and punish offenders. In every case, this certainty is fueled by the assumption that images bridge reality and representation, and that therefore actual children will be protected by the censorship of images. Kathryn Harrison's 1993 novel Exposure, for instance, warned that photography can damage real children both physically and psychologically. The novel spins a story of an abusive father-photographer whose invasive image-making nearly kills his daughter and leaves her on the verge of insanity. The book became a best-seller [End Page 1] and its many reviews extended the messages of its narrative, explicitly linking Exposure's fiction to actual photographers, most often to Sally Mann, a controversial contemporary young artist who uses her own three children as models.

Photography, of course, is the problem. Child pornography cases now always turn out to be photography cases. The impulse to censor images of children in order to protect actual children depends entirely on a belief in photography's realism. To be convinced by photography's realism, in turn, requires certainty about some difficult questions. Are photographs poised exactly on a boundary between reality and representation? To what extent do photographs belong to the realm of the imaginary, and to what extent do they record events or persons? Can we know what a photograph "really" represents? [*1] These questions are old and basic; though exacerbated by the medium of photography, they apply to any work of art, visual or verbal; they could be, and have been, debated in modes ranging from the philosophical to the practical. So far, however, these basic questions have not been part of a debate called child pornography.

Child pornography became an issue only recently. Not until 1984 was child pornography legally distinguished from other pornography and defined according to a stricter standard. This first 1984 child pornography law mandated the prosecution of anyone engaged in the "lascivious exhibition of genitals." The "factors" which make an image of a child illegal in this country now include: "whether focal point of visual depiction was on minor's genitalia or pubic area, whether setting of visual depiction was sexually suggestive, whether minor was depicted in unnatural pose or in inappropriate attire considering his age, whether child was fully or partially clothed or nude, whether visual depiction suggested sexual coyness or willingness to engage in sexual activity, and whether visual depiction was intended or designed to elicit sexual response in viewer," and finally the defendant's use of the image regardless of the photographer's intent. In contrast with adult pornography: "constitutional requirements for child pornography are much simpler and more susceptible to credible assertion . . . [a] conclusion based on observation, not one based on evaluation." [*2]

The law reads like a laundry list of vague terms. What does "sexually suggestive" mean, applied to places, poses, or attire? Has Congress invented a kind of Geiger counter for "sexual coyness"? "Sexual response" is remarkably singular. Our legislators feel confident they can see right through images to someone's unambiguous thoughts, but who is that someone, and how many someone's need be involved--will one suffice, and which one? Most disturbingly, the frame of legal interpretation slips and slides in every direction; "design," "intent," and "use" are treated interchangeably, but somehow "observation" remains reliable, precise, and consistent. [End Page 2]

The word "exhibition" alone signals a visuality the law assumes and condemns but never confronts. Legal logic evades its crucial equation of child pornography with "visual depictions," and of images with photography. Only the realism that photography is supposed to guarantee could logically allow judges, lawyers, and legal scholars to withdraw images from the category of expression they call speech and place them instead in a category legally called action.

Debates about adult pornography often make more or less the same unexamined assumption, but child pornography can now terrify anyone into blindness. Take for example Catharine MacKinnon's and Ronald Dworkin's notorious exchange in the 1993 pages of the New York Review of Books. Neither recognized a distinction between verbal and visual representation they both implied. This was not so surprising on MacKinnon's part. The title of her recent book Only Words notwithstanding, she tends in practice to attack images rather than words (images such as exhibitions at the University of Michigan Art Gallery). Dworkin, too, however, though a staunch defender of free speech, was quick to make one exception to his position, the exception of child pornography, a child pornography whose visuality he also both assumed and ignored. [*3]

Perhaps because everyone feels they understand photography perfectly well, no one trained in visual issues or visual history has participated in drafting, deciding, or debating child pornography law. No one wants to be branded a child abuser (even by association). It does not feel good to be implicated by opinions such as this one voiced by Andrew Vachss, a lawyer specialising in child abuse cases:


In truth, when it comes to child pornography, any discussion of censorship is a sham, typical of the sleight-of-hand used by organised paedophiles as part of their ongoing attempt to raise their sexual predations to the level of civil rights. [*4]

So the assumptions go unchallenged.

Moral panic prevails. Little of what used to be called child pornography circulates now in the United States, and less of it is produced. Already by 1980 the official and very thorough "report to the General Assembly" by the Illinois Legislative Investigating Committee called Sexual Exploitation of Children dis missed the myths of 300,000 children involved in multi-million dollar child porn rings run by the mafia. The report did discover child pornography, most of it made for private use or circulation by "individual child molesters." [*5} 

According to the report, in 1980 the FBI completed a two and a half year porn sting operation. "None of the 60 raids resulted in any seizures of child pornography, even though the raids were comprehensive and nationwide." [*6] 

The longest lasting, biggest-selling underground child porn magazine of the 1970s, the Broad Street Magazine, (of which one out of twelve pages in a typical issue included images) never sold to more than 800 individuals nor grossed more than $30,000 a year. [*7] 

Then came the crackdown of the early 80s. Even a [End Page 3] spokesman for the National Law Center for Children and Families, a conservative children's advocacy group, said to the New York Times in February 1995: "There's really no commercial child pornography in the United States." [*8] 

Anxiety has shifted to a supposed black market exchange in images, particularly in computer images. Yet when, in September of 1995, the FBI announced the results of an investigation into the viewing habits of 3.5 million America Online subscribers, they had only been able to locate 125 potential child pornography offenders, which included persons soliciting sex acts with children as well as persons trafficking in images. [*9] A sting appeal for images of children engaged in sex acts reportedly received eight replies. [*10] Would we be shocked if we learned that 125 people in America might be guilty of any other crime? Do eight images constitute a cultural crisis?

Fear of child pornography continues to escalate. Ian Hacking has reminded us in his essay "The Making and Molding of Child Abuse" that we only recently invented current definitions of child abuse. [*11] Yet the evil of child abuse now wields an axiomatic moral force powerful enough to override many arguments, including the argument that there is a boundary between reality and representation.

"We further assert that child pornography is the documentation of child abuse and, therefore, cannot be considered protected speech and/or a Constitutional right." This is the typical argument in favor of censorship, here articulated by Sara O'Meara, the co-founder, Chairman, and CEO of Childhelp USA, an organization devoted to "abused and neglected children." [*12]

 Because this argument is not only compressed, but relies on compression, I want to restate it more slowly, step by step. Children are inherently powerless and therefore cannot give consent to sexual acts. Sexual acts with children are therefore criminalized sexual abuses. The conditions under which children are photo graphed to produce sexual images are a form of child abuse, therefore the making of sexual images of children is a criminal act. Sexual photographs of children document their own making, therefore they are documents of a crime. Therefore the photographs themselves become criminal actions. Speech is protected by the First Amendment, but actions are not. Therefore sexual images of children, being actions, are not protected by the First Amendment and can be prosecuted as crimes.

This logic should be difficult to follow, because in its fully articulated form it includes some difficult steps. Are the documents of an action equivalent to that action? If the action is a crime, are documents of it a crime? Are all visual representations of an action documents? The assumption that allows these questions to go unanswered is the assumption that photographs are documents, as opposed to representations. [*13] 

Of course photographs can and do serve documentary functions. To adapt Abraham Lincoln's famous adage, some photographs document reality all of the time, and all photographs document [End Page 4] reality some of the time, but all photographs don't document reality all of the time. Alas, our lawmakers now are all fooled all of the time.

Completely justified concern for real children has brought censorship of representation in its wake. Already in 1982, New York v. Ferber denied child pornography the possibility of artistic significance. By 1989, Massachusetts v. Oakes included children's nudity within the definition of pornography, provided the image showed "lascivious intent." The crucial case, however, is Knox v. United States.

Stephen Knox was a history graduate student at Penn State with a previous conviction for possession of child pornography when, in 1991, his apartment was searched, and the images in question, videotapes produced by a company called Nather, were seized along with supporting evidence. On October 11, 1991, Knox was convicted of possessing child pornography, a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison under federal law.

Knox v. United States set a legal precedent. The genitals of the children pictured in the Nather Tapes were covered, the children were wearing what the court called "normal" clothing, and the children were not engaged in explicitly or implicitly sexual conduct, though often judges and reporters referred vaguely to "sexually suggestive poses." The children pictured had not been posed, had not been brought anywhere to be pictured, and were not even aware they were being taped. The Nather Tapes were condemned as pornography because a zoom lens had been used to create extended close-ups of the children's clothed genital areas. Framing had made content illegal.

Knox had crossed a dangerous line. [*14]  I would certainly accept a judgement on the circumstances in which a photograph was made based on the documentary evidence a photograph might supply. I would reluctantly consider the judgement on an image's meaning based on its content. But I absolutely reject judgements on an image's meaning based on the framing of its content, or based on any other stylistic or technical aspect of an image. However marginally, the Nather Tapes were not being used as documentary evidence. They were being judged as representations.

While the courts do not agree with my distinction, Knox gave them enough trouble to produce some curious reasoning. The U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania, where Stephen Knox was first tried, ruled against him on the grounds that the upper thighs of the children, which were sometimes exposed, were a part of the pubic area. Stephen Knox received a five-year sentence. His appeal to the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals was denied on October 15, 1992. The upper thigh was not a part of the pubic area, the appeals court ruled, but exhibition of the genitals did not require that the genitals be visible.

Knox was appealed to the Supreme Court. As is customary in controversial or legally difficult cases, the Solicitor General wrote a brief to the Supreme Court advising it of his opinion. Unlike the Attorney General, under whom he [End Page 5] nominally serves, the Solicitor General is not a political appointment and acts almost as an additional Supreme Court Justice. In his brief dated September 17, 1993, Drew Days III, for the first and last time in Knox's history, addressed the central issue of the case. Although he did not make his point with force, Days argued that "lascivious exhibition" did require visibility because some aspect of the documentary content of the images, as opposed to their technique or effect, was required to constitute pornography. (Days's argument has frequently been caricatured as saying that all nude photographs of children are pornographic.) Days consequently argued that Knox had been judged on incorrect grounds. Knox was accordingly sent back (remanded is the legal term), with new instructions, to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on November 1, 1993.

Knox exploded. Religious groups, child-advocacy groups, and almost the entire U.S. Congress claimed to represent children's interests by attacking Days's position. Tapping into their grass-roots organization, right-wing religious groups jammed Congressional circuits with their phone calls. Within three days of Knox's remand, on November 4, 1993, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution censuring the Justice Department position 100 to 0. According to a constitutional law scholar, such censure is "almost unprecedented." [*15]  

Eight days after the Senate censure, on November 12, President Clinton publicized a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno ordering tougher child pornography laws to obviate the Days brief.

 On April 8, 1994, a Federal Judge allowed a "friend of the court" (amicus curiae) brief criticizing the Days brief to be filed at the Third District Court of Appeals by 173 Republican and 61 Democratic members of Congress, joined by several organizations describing themselves as children's advocates, including the national organization Law Center for Children and Families.

 Twelve days later, on April 20, the U.S. House of Representatives echoed the Senate's censure of the Justice Department, voting 425 to 3. 

The Third District Court reaffirmed its ruling on June 9, 1994. The court rejected the argument of Days's brief, citing the intent of Congress when it passed the original law, an intent clarified by Congress in its censures and in its friends of the court brief. [*16]  

Immediately following the mid-term elections, on November 10, 1994, the Justice Department reversed its position on Knox in a brief signed by Attorney General Janet Reno. Because it is legally unprecedented for such a brief to be signed only by the Attorney General, and not by anyone else in the Solicitor General's office, we can assume that Reno's position was not supported by her own department, but by the White House. The lawyer for the Law Center for Children and Families, John D. McMickle, reacted to this last Knox brief by saying to the New York Times: "This case is the first indication of how the Justice Department and the Clinton Administration will react in a conservative world." [*17]

Obviously Knox raised questions bigger than itself. For Congress, several federal courts, and thousands of citizens, Knox served to take a stand on the [End Page 6] entire issue of child pornography. 

I, too, think Knox deserves a stand on principle. But the principle I want to defend is a principle of interpretation. Knox located a fixed meaning within an image. Yet Knox itself proves how difficult it is to do any such thing--impossible, I would argue. 

The arguments of the District Court and the Court of Appeals both relied heavily on the context of the Nather Tapes, especially on the titles of the individual tapes, on the texts that advertised the tapes for sale, and on the audience those titles and advertisements designated. Yet this reliance was never acknowledged, and all legal decisions purported to be based on the images alone. Press accounts, moreover, handled Knox in the same way, relying on the tapes' context yet pretending to see self-sufficient visual content. 

The mistake both judges and the press made was not about Knox's guilt, or about whether the Nather Tapes were pornographic. Their mistake was a confusion between the frame of interpretation they used and the frame they turned into law. The Nather Tapes were not themselves intrinsically pornographic. The terms on which they were marketed made them pornographic. Titles such as "Young and Sassy," descriptions such as "Just as good as nudity, some say better," and promises of adult masculine heterosexual arousal made their intentions explicitly clear. 

Child pornography designates itself. Or, as Time magazine reports the words of Robert Thomas, described as "the online-porn leader" (now in jail): "The trick, he says, is in how you write the pitch lines that describe your pictures." This is especially true in the case of child pornography which apparently pulls many of its images, which are of nude children, from non-pornographic contexts. Thomas, for instance, alleges that his more than 5000 images of nude children "are from nudist colonies. Many of them are family snapshots." [*18] 

Knox, like all child pornography cases, should not have been decided on the basis of images, but on the basis of the practices which structure the meanings of images. Knox encourages Americans to castigate images and to deny practices. It thereby perversely sacrifices Free Speech in vain. For the only effective control over action is the regulation of practices. Precisely because speech and action are categorically different, it is inefficient at best to pursue action through speech.

Child pornography cases should be sexual child abuse cases. Because I believe that children are inherently powerless in relation to adults, and cannot therefore "give consent," (especially not to their parents) I do think we should outlaw all adult sexual acts (heterosexual and homosexual) between children and adults. (Though drawing a line between child and adult will always, I admit, be somewhat arbitrary.) 

As I have already conceded, photographs or films might provide documentary evidence of sexual acts between children and adults. Images might be used to prosecute actions. Interpretations of ambiguous visual sexual meanings, however, besides not being themselves actions, are not documentary evidence of anything. Interpretations are, and should be, subjectively and elusively imaginative. The image of a child, dressed or naked, might [End Page 7] arouse many kinds of fantasies and desires. And that's just the point--many different kinds.

IMAGE LINK=Figure 1. Take only one example, a 1925 photograph by Edward Weston titled Neil, Nude.

According to today's standards, the image could easily be classified as child pornography. The image is fairly obviously an unaltered photograph. Therefore a real child, Neil, had to have posed for the photographer. Clearly the photographer was fascinated by the child's body, including by his genitals which are at the center of the image; the tight framing of the child's body could be interpreted to document prurience, just as it was in Knox. This photograph, moreover, is one of a series in which the photographer took multiple shots of the boy's torso, both from the front and from behind. [*19] 

It would be no defense, today, to point out that Neil was Edward Weston's son. On the contrary: the specter of parental child exploitation would only fuel a censor's wrath. If a court was in doubt, it could rely on a convergence of opinion between two knowledgeable people who have little else in common. The art critic Douglas Crimp has written that the Neil series arouses homosexual desires, [*20] while Exposure's Kathryn Harrison chose one of the Neils for an issue of American Photo magazine devoted to erotic photographs. [*21]

Times have changed. For decades, Neil was interpreted as an artistic masterpiece, in two related but quite distinct modes. The first phase was Modernist. By the time Edward Weston had reached what he considered his artistic maturity, he was committed to formalism. He adamantly rejected photography's documentary capacity in favor of abstraction. The beauty of his images, he insisted, resided in what he called "my vision," and in the autonomously esthetic quality of the prints he made from his negatives. In his Daybooks, which became a bible for modernist photographers, he writes about the Neil series. January 6, 1926:


[. . .] If I am ever temperamental as story book artists are, it is while printing. The reason is based on economics. The first print must be perfect, which is of course expecting the impossible. [. . .] One nude of Neil is "almost right." Should I reprint it? or is it 'good enough?' "

Next entry, January 7:


Printing of yesterday yielded five more prints, the most pleasing, another nude of Neil, though I must say that I am not happy with the rendering of deep black in the white stock, which seems to solarize more easily than the buff. The deepest blacks are not clean--they have a chemical quality--yet Neil's whitest of white bodies should be printed on white. [*22]

Later in the same entry, he repeats with pride the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's praise: "Your work leaves me indifferent to subject matter." [*23] 

The art [End Page 8] world responded accordingly. Nancy Newhall, an architect of Weston's Modernist reputation, described his nudes in 1952, carefully contrasting them with documentary photography:


The light he loves best is almost axial with his lens--the same light-angle at which a news photographer's flash bulb flattens faces and collapses space with its fake shadows. Here the luminous flesh rounds out of shadow; the shadow itself, from subtle recession to deep void, is as active and potent as the light. In the torso of his [End Page 9] little son Neil, where he indicates how that long-neglected theme, the Male Nude, might be approached, sinuous shadows give life to delicate whites.

She continued, referring to the inspiration by ancient Greek art that Weston himself had admitted in the early Twenties: [*24]


In these, as often in Weston's work, the beholder sometimes recognizes, with a tingle down his spine, the originals from which various centuries launched whole schools of thought. Here is a torso with the pure calm flow the Greeks took as ideal. The photograph is not Greek; it does not need to be. The reality it reveals existed before the Parthenon; it is continuous with man. [*25]

True to her words, Newhall reproduced a Neil in the Daybooks side by side with an equally abstract nude of a woman. Two bodies, child and adult, were shown as formal analogues of each other. [*26]

The second phase of Neil's status was Post-Modernist. In 1980 Sherri Levine re-photographed six of the Neil nudes from a commercial poster and exhibited them in a Manhattan gallery. Her gesture became famous among art critics and historians when Douglas Crimp theorized it later the same year. 

In an article titled "The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism," Crimp explained how Levine had undermined a Modernist cult of authorship by demonstrating that images are as much found as made, and not found in nature but in other images. Even photographs, Crimp argued, are not about reality, but are about ideas, an unending chain of idealizing desires. Like Newhall, he too used a comparison of the Neils with ancient Greek sculpture, but for a different purpose:


According to the copyright law, the images belong to Weston, or now to the Weston estate. I think, to be fair, however, we might just as well give them to Praxiteles, for if it is the image that can be owned, then surely these belong to classical sculpture, which would put them in the public domain. Levine has said that, when she showed her photographs to a friend, he remarked that they only made him want to see the originals. 
"Of course," she replied, "and the originals make you want to see that little boy, but when you see the boy, the art is gone." 
For the desire that is initiated by that representation does not come to closure around that little boy, is not at all satisfied by him. The desire of representation exists only insofar as the original always be deferred. It is only in the absence of the original that representation may take place. And representation takes place because it is always already there in the world as representation. It was, of course, Weston himself who said that "the photograph must be visualized in full before the exposure is made." [*27]

In retrospect, the modernist and post-modernist interpretations of Weston's Neils do seem closely hyphenated. Modernists like Newhall--and, importantly, Weston himself--did place a cult value on the authorship and originality of images (culminating in hierarchical distinctions among photographic prints from the same negative) that Post-Modernists like Crimp successfully deflated. 

Conversely, Post-Modernist theory never could match Modernism's visuality. No one needs to see (a reproduction of) a Levine Neil to understand Crimp's [End Page 10] argument about Weston's authorship. No one needs to see anything to understand the argument. Nonetheless, considering these two arguments about Neils from the perspective of the mid 1990s, they have something crucial in common. Both Modernism and Post-Modernism insist on the formal autonomy of images, on the value of esthetic integrity, on a categorical distinction between reality and representation.

Writing during a panic about child pornography, I am struck by how equally indifferent Newhall and Crimp were to the content of the Neils. Newhall did mention the "Male Nude," and Crimp did discuss a disembodied "desire," including a desire "to see that little boy," but it was simply beside either of their points to care that the Neils were close-up images of a naked little boy's flesh. It seemed so irrelevant that, ever since 1925, the Neils with penises, the Neils with buttocks, and the Neils showing no genitals have been published interchangeably, as if this were not an issue. Now a penis is an issue.

I hope I have made it clear that arguments like Newhall's and Crimp's cannot be forgotten or dismissed. The argument I have made so far about Knox depends on their logic. In retrospect, however, I do also think that such arguments, including the one I have made so far about Knox, are necessary but not sufficient. For what we can see very clearly in the acute case of debates over child pornography is that logic cannot match the passions of the moment. Abstractly correct arguments do not evaporate historically specific concerns.

The argument now is not whether there is or isn't any artistic value in any image accused of child pornography. Proponents of censorship now believe artistic value is outweighed by the goal of protecting children. Already in 1987, Abigail Solomon-Godeau pointed out that Levine's appropriation of Weston's photographs would mean nothing to anyone outside the small circle who knew and cared about Weston's authorship. [*28] 

Now it doesn't matter to many Americans who authored any image or whether an image is a work of artistic genius. Images are now being judged on the basis of the desires their content might arouse. Andrew Vachss, once more, provides a representative expression of this attitude:


Are such depictions "art"? Again, the paedophile community seeks to make us complicitous in begging the question. The issue is not "what is art?" but "what is victimisation?" I can no more accept a child pornographer saying he is a victim of censorship than I could a mugger claiming his field of activity was performance art. [*29]

Modernist and Post-Modernist art criticism now proves inadequate. It cannot ward off any argument like the current child pornography argument. However theoretically admirable, it simply doesn't function well enough now, especially not in the political and legal cultural arenas that subsume and control the professional art world. Modernist and Post-Modernist art criticism explains [End Page 11] the condition of esthetics, or, to put it more broadly, the condition of representation. It fails, though, to account for or deal with the effects of esthetics, of representation.

Effect hardly precludes condition, any more than history precludes theory. Swinging the critical pendulum back all the way toward arguments about effect, let alone about the accuracy or validity of any one effect, achieves little. I would never have devoted so much time to the abstract logical flaws of child pornography law if I believed that thinking about images should be either/or: either about condition or about effect. 

Back to the Neils. In 1990, Douglas Crimp recanted his position on Weston's and Levine's Neils, writing of "blindness" and "a failure of theory generally." He had decided that the content of the Neils did matter.


The men in my bedroom were perfectly able to read--in Weston's posing, framing and lighting the young Neil so as to render his body as a classical sculpture--the long-established codes of homo-eroticism.

Crimp proceded to argue against homophobia and for the political right to protection of homoerotic images.  [*30] 

My problem with Crimp's revised argument is not its homoerotic interpretation of the Neils. My problem is its suggestion that any one interpretation is definitive, a meaning someone could be "perfectly able to read" in the image itself, finding signs within the image to decode. For this is the logic whose structure allows exactly the kind of censorship Crimp fights against.

Interpretive "codes" are not inherent in images. Radically divergent codes can find equally good fodder in the same image. I could, and will, offer an alternative code to Crimp's, which can be proved as well as others, without in any way denying Crimp's. To be committed to any one meaning, to insist on the validity and on the right to freedom of any one meaning, does not require rejection of other meanings. On the contrary. The condition of freedom for my interpretation of the Neils is the freedom of Crimp's interpretation, and the freedom of a heterosexual pedophile's potential arousal by the Neils. Criticism committed to a point of view--which analyses, discovers, or promotes an effect particular to a time, place, or kind of person--cannot afford to lose sight of the condition on which it is allowed to see. Committed criticism has to be both committed and critical.

In addition to their other meanings--Modernist, Post-Modernist, and homoerotic--Edward Weston's Neils can convey parental passion. Biographical sources agree that Weston was a devoted, if unconventional, father to his four sons. It was with his children that Weston maintained the steadiest and most durable emotional relationships of his life (outlasting his many intense love affairs with adult women). His feelings for his boys had a banal physical dimension; like most parents, he believed his children were beautiful and was [End Page 12] mesmerized by their carnal charm. This, for instance, is how he remembered taking the Neil negatives:


Besides Neil's companionship . . . he afforded me a visual beauty which I recorded in a series of Graflex negatives of considerable value. He was anxious to pose for me, but it was never a "pose," he was absolutely natural and unconscious in front of the camera. When I return he may be spoiled, if not bodily changed, in mental attitude. Last spring in San Francisco at eight years, he was in the flower of unawakened days before adolescence: tall for his years, delicately moulded, with reed-like flow of unbroken line: rare grey eyes, ingenuous, dreaming, and a crown of silken blond hair. He is a lovely child. [*31]

Unlike most parents, Edward Weston had the skills and talent to represent a parental gaze.

Long before he distilled his vision into abstract modernism, Weston was an accomplished professional portrait photographer, with a special gift for portraits of children. Early in his career, in 1912, Weston went so far as to publish an article on "Photographing Children in the Studio," which he called: "the most interesting, fascinating, and one of the best paying branches of the business (excuse me, profession!)" [*32] 

Throughout the article he expresses an unusually genial fondness for all children, and a keen appreciation of their visual appeal to parents. "Another way," he mentioned in passing, "to sell more than one position is to suggest a nude study, if the child is well formed." [*33] 

Weston knew his subject intimately. Ever since the birth of his first child, he had been filling albums with photographs of Chandler, Brett, Neil, and Cole: the usual poses, settings, angles, and outfits, including no outfit. [*34] Weston's Neils hover on a cusp between parental photography and formalist photography.

To me, the Neils look parentally erotic. To me--and I know I am speaking personally--they represent my maternal passion for my son's body. How many times have I stared adoringly at him, caressed him, kissed him, hugged him, inhaled his infant breath like the smell of life? I long for him physically when we are apart, to hold him close is bliss. During the first years of his life I spent most of my time with him caring for his body: feeding him, cleaning him, rocking him to sleep--not out of obligation but with love. The Neils turn my feelings into something exterior to myself, clearly visible and supremely ordered, at once idealized and tangible, into misty greys, a ripple easily defining one side of shadowed form, the body poured thickly, luminously, swayingly through the image, as if never-ending, never marred. The Neils offer me a vision of plenitude, a token of untrammeled maternal joy.

Post-Modernist theory may correctly insist that all images defer desire, yet some deferrals of desire act more effectively than others. The ineffable difference between the beauty of a great print and an ordinary print may be only a difference of degree, but desire too increases, or is deferred, by degrees. A great Weston print is just one degree more magical (a slightly more persuasive fetish?) [End Page 13] than any other Weston print, and many more degrees more magical than most other photographs. Of course I like photographs of my own child, but there is so much more to my maternal passion (call it experience or fantasy) than could be satisfied by clumsy references to his appearance. All those snapshots seem to me too obviously lacking, straining perpetually, asymptotically, toward an impossible (I know it's impossible) replication of what my child means to me.

IMAGE LINK=Figure 2. My maternal longing finds only a temporary resting place at Weston's Neils. Desire drives me onward, pursued by the loss my child haunts me with ever since he was born and ceased being part of me. 

Sometimes all the Neils frustrate me with their lyrical, liquid, elegiac elegance. Weston's vision of his child corresponds to a parental ideal I cannot always identify with. My maternal passion is only sometimes so limpid. I could find expressions of darker, more complicated, more visceral parental passions in many images. 

A growing number of gifted photographers, both women and men, are expanding the ways adults imagine their relationships to children far beyond the conventions of the past. [*35] But in Sally Mann's 1985 Popsicle Drips I find another interpretation of Weston's Neils, one which confronts everything about my maternal passion that Weston glides by, and which matches Weston's visual prowess.

Mann's photograph cites one of Weston's Neils exactly, but marks it as her own. [*36] Weston's image seen through a flame, Mann's image twists where Weston's sways, with a sooty luminosity, blacker and brighter, smoky at the edges, and in the place of sharpest focus, clearest light, the mark. 

What is that fluid on the boy's body, smeared sideways across his chest like dirt ribs, splashed below his navel, trickling down his thighs, framing his penis? The mark demands to be scrutinized, the photograph requires careful looking. Is it blood? My terrified maternal gaze at first assumes the worst, and rushes back and forth, looking for a wound. No wound--a thudding relief relaxes my eye, it's only the usual mess. 

My passion for my son's body is often so flickeringly pitted against fear, alternately assailed by and exorcising visions of damage. Sometimes I want him gone, out of my sight, not under my supervision (so I can write this essay), in someone else's photograph. And sometimes I can see with humor the flaws in my fantasy of his perfection, like a great photograph spoiled by a popsicle.

Popsicle Drips is not pretty, or sentimental, or simple. It is not merely a photographic document, but a complex image that works self-consciously with its photographic medium and with the history of photography. And to me it is sexual, in the broadest and most life-enhancing way. I do not mean sexual in the way the word is usually used, and in that sense I think Sally Mann is quite right when she says her images are not sexual. She uses different words, words less narrowly construed. Her images, she says, are about: "the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality and beauty," "told without fear and without shame." [*37] 

Fear and shame are what child pornography hysteria heaps onto images of children which might be considered sexual in any way. Yet I will say it again. [End Page 14] My passion for my child is sexual. I conceived, carried, and gave birth to my son with my body and I love him with my body. I cherish his body, in endless, daily ways. Like all irrational passions, mine has its many sides: selfless, proud, protective, it is also fierce, possessive, narcissistic, guilty, and mournful. Only passion could drag me through the sleepless nights, the tantrums, the resentments, and the boredom. A pretty, sentimental, simple, and desexualized maternity is what women have been confined to by a world they have little control over. I chose a version of parenting I see in images like Weston's and Mann's. [End Page 15]

Many people loathe Mann's photographs, and would be happy to censor them. Our Constitution designed freedom of speech to protect political speech, which might not immediately appear to include images of children, especially not ambiguous and difficult images like Mann's. But I claim the parental desires Mann's work represents to me as a political right. 

I claim a political right to debate the definitions of parenting and childhood, including through images. My claim does not come from a belief in the superiority of my maternal desire over any other, but from the differences between the many interpretations images of children elicit. 

Child pornography law shuts down images of children to their lowest common denominator. Current law would like us to believe that it can ordain a single "conclusion based on observation, not one based on evaluation" and preserve our freedom of speech. Only censored observation, however, does not evaluate. Free observation always interprets. In the words of Yogi Berra: "You can observe a lot by watching."

Anne Higonnet teaches in the Art Department of Wellesley College. She is writing a book about controversial photographs of children.

[Home]     [Up]     [Articles & Essays]