Outing of the family album

Pictures of Innocence
December 4, 1998

Marina Warner ponders the line between innocence and pornography

A man in a dirty mac approaches a child in a playground and gives her some pictures, which she brings back to her parents. As they begin leafing through, their expressions of shock and horror grow ever more intense. The camera moves round to close in on the images: the Eiffel Tower, the twin spires of Notre Dame and other aspiring monuments and landmarks. In the context, these innocuous buildings look scandalously suggestive. The scene-setting has turned us filthy-minded.

Luis Bu$uel's l974 film, Le Fantome de la Liberte, delights in shaking expectations and exposing conventions, and the scene explores the shifting interpretations of innocence with severe, mordant surrealist humour. As Anne Higonnet discusses in this sensitive and wise study of images of children, something similar has happened to pictures of children that were once blameless. Calvin Klein, Brooke Shields, Madonna, Courtney Love and several others refused permission to reproduce photographs that have widely appeared as part of mainstream publicity campaigns or in other public media: the context of this book and its examination of the issue of attitudes to childhood, paedophiliac sexuality and infantile seduction, scared them off. Yet Higonnet is no Kenneth Starr, searching with distempered prurience every lapse from purity. Without straying into the wilder reaches of First Amendment special pleading or resorting to emperor's new clothes humbug, she has formulated a liberal, intellectual defence of childhood portraiture today, as practised by controversial photographers such as Sally Mann and even Robert Mapplethorpe. As Higonnet notes, her task is difficult: "by the mid-l990s sexual meanings in images of children seemed so clear that they had to be acknowledged and fought."

The arguments in Pictures of Innocence do not altogether cohere, and many of the stumbling blocks will not simply melt away. But Higonnet is a persuasive advocate, and never hypocritical in a field where the mealy-mouthed abound, as she struggles to reconcile the interests of children with the ambitions and scope of art. Her book begins as a survey of a neglected patch in the history of iconography, divagates into an exploration of the feminine, often maternal, visual imagination, but then comes to grips with the increasing legislation against child pornography and its implications for artists.

Bravely, Higonnet attempts to set working rules for safety and protection of child subjects and argues on behalf of much controversial work, including the best-selling Anne Geddes, whose lustrously polychrome images of toddlers sitting in cabbages or squirming among rosebuds take kitsch to new extremes.

Higonnet defines the "Romantic child" of the past, as depicted by Joshua Reynolds in Bubbles and John Everett Millais in Cherry Ripe. Victorian male encomiasts of innocence, and especially of girlishness, were followed by a hugely successful generation of commercial female artists, who prettified their subjects and withdrew them from the bleak house of class and work and pain and dirt. Kate Greenaway, with her pastoral Regency fantasias, pioneered franchised, tie-in merchandise, while Humphrey Bogart's mother enjoyed a profitable career making adorably cute studies of babies, known as "Humphreys". In this move from the Royal Academy to the high-street photographer's shop, from the ancestral portrait to the children's picture book, Higonnet perceives the dangerous effects of Romantic idealism on artists and models.

Women demarcated domesticity as their sanctified preserve, and the hankering for childhood innocence situated boys and girls alike in an unsexed but feminine-gendered paradise of water babies and fairies. She cites the perceptive and polemical work of James R. Kincaid, who, in his books Child Loving and the more recent Erotic Innocence, points to Victorian fantasies of redemption through children, of autonomous infant virtue and angelic grace as the legacy with which contemporaries, young and adult, have to contend.

At the same time, however, these pure and private paradises delivered intense, sentimental pleasures that have come to appear loaded with erotic feeling. Lewis Carroll's nude studies were cancelled by him, and are mostly now lost, even while he scoffed at Mrs Grundyism. Julia Margaret Cameron and Clementina Hawarden's domestic allegories, casting daughters as dreaming seraphs and grandchildren as baby angels, have been powerfully placed in a history of female passions by perceptive critics such as Carol Mavor. As Higonnet comments: "Interpretation threatens to bring real consequences in its wake, and as beholders, we post-Freudians have all acquired knowing eyes."

Desirable children crowd the public forum: as the heroes of films, as the unlikely lure in ads for cars and credit cards, as the inducement to give to disaster funds and war zones. Higonnet quotes an estimate that a third of all advertising images features a child. Market analysts know that the bodies of infants, toddlers, pubescents or adolescents trigger our longings, command our identifications. And the process is circular: the more children successfully act as catalysts of appetite, the more they will be used. "In practice," Higonnet writes, "our culture not only tolerates constant spectacles of children's bodies, it craves and promotes them."

One of the differences between Victorian and late 20th-century approaches to looking at children derives from this spread of advertising: "in the past, makers and consumers of mass media accepted the circulation of desires around child bodies because they understood those desires to be fantasies." But advertisements insistently invite consumers to imagine themselves inside the frame, future enactors of the fantasy. The realism of photography paradoxically removes the barrier between reality and fantasy. In contrast, the allegories that Cameron and other Victorians fabricated, sometimes with clumsy solemnity, posited another realm, unattainable except through the artifice of photography. Higonnet proposes, "The way to maximise both freedom of expression and children's protection is to locate a workable boundary between the real and the imaginary in photographs."

But this observation does not circumvent the problem of eroticisation and voyeurism: some of the worst peddlers of nympholept dreams, such as 1960s calendar photographer David Hamilton, throw aside the medium's documentary fidelities in favour of patent and sickly fantasy. Nor does the proposal explain the uneasiness produced by some well-intentioned pictures of suffering children, for these records of experience involve the spectator in another kind of voyeuristic relation.

Higonnet is on firmer ground when she pleads that attention should shift from interpreting the photographs themselves, from scanning for reprehensible/acceptable nudity, to "the motives of audiences and industries". The uses to which images are put can be analysed with a clarity that aesthetic assessment cannot achieve. With regard to audiences, she makes her strongest claim on behalf of all images, regardless of content, when they are made in safety, by people known to the children, in conditions that do not frighten or harm them, and for private consumption. In this light, Higonnet tackles several hard cases, including Edward Weston's 1925 torsos of his son Neil, which show the boy's exquisitely shapely, smooth, ephebic body as if it were carved in alabaster.

Pasted in a family album, naked children do not, and should not, look pornographic. But when a family album is published, do the same images change meaning? Higonnet welcomes the appearance in contemporary work of the "Knowing child", who no longer embodies Romantic innocence. Unlike Victorian idealists, who denied individuality, emotions and even activity to children, Sally Mann has notoriously portrayed her own children at work, at play, grimy, sullen, capricious, bruised - complex beings, with minds of their own. A famous image, Popsicle Drips, deliberately revises one of Weston's pure-limbed Neil studies by showing Sally Mann's son Emmett with a smear dripping down his stomach, penis and thighs. However, this melting ice lolly looks abhorrently like the dirty trace of a wound. Emmett called a stop to his mother's images of himself, perhaps because, unlike Neil Weston, he was disturbed by their reception today. As Higonnet says: "The best protection against the photograph becoming traumatic is to stop casting moral doubt on the photograph, and instead shift blame to where it belongs, on the abusive makers and users of photography."

The portraitists of "Knowing children" continue the female tradition of the genre, but they take their subjects seriously, grant them passions and desires and an inner life, and explore the experience of childhood with far more curiosity than their idealising forebears did. Wendy Ewald pioneered a remarkable series of pictures when she gave cameras to children in the village in India where she was working and invited them to make photographs of their lives. The results strikingly dissolve the boundary between the real and the imaginary: the subjects appear in their home settings, unenhanced by Romantic glamour, but at the same time, they are playing parts in stories of their own invention. In one picture, a boy takes a photograph of another with his eyes closed, and captions it "My Brother Dreaming".

The involvement of the subjects with their images has become a reliable warranty of innocence. Children no longer submit passively to the camera's stare, but must collaborate willingly and be seen to understand what they are agreeing to do.

Is this feasible? Perhaps in the family setting, where parents are increasingly studying their own children, making a photographic record of changes and growth that can compare with the earliest 17th-century parental diaries of childhood development. But as Higonnet knows, home is so often the principal scene of the crime. Children, both Romantic and Knowing, bear the burden of adults' aspirations and failures, and the present crisis in childhood is indeed reflected in the images that are made of them, but can never be remedied by picturing alone.

Marina Warner has recently published No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock. She is a visiting fellow commoner, Trinity College, Cambridge.

Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood

Author - Anne Higonnet
ISBN - 0 500 28048 7
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £14.95
Pages - 256

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