Kyla McFarlane says this photo is "beautiful, but also slightly discomforting". Photographer Anne Noble took the shot of her daughter, Ruby's Room #23 (2000-02), and displayed it along with photos by other artists at Monash University Museum of Art (1 September to 23 October 2004) under McFarlane's curation.
McFarlane says the viewer "winces" because the photo is "an intrusion into our notions of what a representation of a child should be". The "maternal relation" is "a tightly negotiated space of compromise and conspiracy". The exhibition was called The Line Between Us: The maternal relation in contemporary photography and all the artists in it were mothers of small children.
But a strikingly similar photo is added to the last page of Marc Baptiste's Innocent: Nudes (2007, Universe Publishing, a division of Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.).
A page of copy by photographer and academic George Pitts attempts to give the book, which I mentioned earlier this month, a gloss of stern appraisal. One artist writes about a colleague, lending cred to what is, essentially, soft porn.
"The innocent gamine is a type ... that jars the eye with her beauty; in her delicacy, inhibits the viewer's drive; and, with her sweet and seeming lack of full maturity, inhabits the viewer's soul," writes Pitts. Such figures have always worked to "compel the viewer's absolute attention", "elicit in the viewer an ache, an unfathomable pang", and "demand a rarefied sensitivity".
In the exhibition catalogue, Polixeni Papapetrou is quoted saying that an image of a naked child "becomes complicated by our own fears" (because seen "[t]hrough our jaded twenty-first century eyes", adds McFarlane).
"As outsiders, we can only look longingly in on [the world of play inhabited by mother and child] from beyond the looking glass." Pitts calls Baptiste's work "philosophical" and "richly and cheerfully sensual". He describes the photographer's vision as having "the controlled poise of a gallant, agile performer".
I loaded these photos because it struck me that, on the same day, I was confronted by two such similar images from such diverse sources. In one, the mother-photographer is described as recording "small moments of play" and in the other, we are given a glossy, expensive set of perv prints.
No wonder kids are confused. The Summer 2007 cover of film director Francis Ford Coppola's All-Story magazine illustrates the point. While browsing around Ariel, the bookshop in Paddington where I bought the Baptiste book, I came across other evidence of raunch culture aimed at young people. Rather than shocked, I am puzzled.
The prestigious bookshop has always promoted a sophisticated identity. Pitt's copy in Baptiste's book and McFarlane's persona (the catalogue and exhibition were an "extension of [her] recently submitted PhD thesis") comingle in my mind to form a picture of what is acceptable.
Rather than 'disturbing' it seems as though representations of young people as objects of sexual desire are proliferating. And this kind of Web site (the link arrived unbidden in my inbox) is particularly frank. Most unsettling are the colours, fonts and generally 'childish' design plan. The girls whose pictures it contains may all be over eighteen years old in real life, but the implication of its overall look is quite explicit.