Magazine article History Today

A Picture of Innocence?

Magazine article History Today

A Picture of Innocence?

Article excerpt

A 50s baby, at a few months old I was photographed naked on the hearth-rug in our front room. Such images were a common-place in that decade: cliched. Thousands of such pictures must have been taken. Thousands of others record children and adolescents playing unclothed in suburban gardens. There is nothing out of the ordinary in such images. These pictures document visions of seemingly innocent, untroubled childhoods.

What happened recently to the newsreader Julia Somerville, her partner Jeremy Dixon, and Somerville's daughter, demonstrates that attitudes have changed. Some commercial photographic processors have codes of practice under which they will not develop photographs of naked children, others rely on the gut feelings of their staff. In some cases they will refer `questionable' material to the relevant authorities. And if that happens the family becomes tangled up with the law, and in its wake the intervention of social workers, psychiatrists and a battery of `experts'. Such events are surprisingly common, but not always so easily justified. We only heard about the Somerville case because one of the protagonists is a public figure.

For my parents, and for the generations that preceded them, photographs of naked children were either amusing moments of naivete - future memories in the photo album - or else sublime representations of an ephemeral, unconscious, beauty. In British society, and not coincidentally in American culture, since the late 1970s photographs of naked children have become part of a moral climate which sees them as representations of sexual abuse and predatory adult desire.

At the same time as the Victorians invented photography they initiated a set of discourses which organised sex, prohibiting certain desires and practices, but also naming them for the first time. The body became, almost simultaneously, the subject of a particular mode of representation - one stressing its `reality' - and the subject of regulation. This intimate connection between what we see as individuals and what we police as a society has been maintained to the present. The depiction of children, naked, in photographs, is as old as the medium, and the present furore which surrounds such imagery is an inevitable consequence of the historic relationship between representation and regulation.

As early as 1847 J.T. Withe produced an album containing explicitly erotic scenes with children and naked portraits of young girls. Graham Ovenden, an expert on Victorian photography, estimates that postcards, which were of course used to convey much early photographic pornography, featured five times as many nude studies of children as of adults.

So the naked child, as a mediated image, entered what we might call `mass-culture'. But photography as a true mass medium, both as a means of press communication and as a social phenomenon, was still many years away. Anyone could have a cheap portrait taken by a professional, but otherwise the cost of cameras, as well as of materials and processing, together with access to leisure, limited photography to being a practice that was specifically middle and upper class. Talented amateurs like Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementia Hawarden were able to use the children of their families and household in carefully posed tableaux of statuesque innocence with appropriate, legitimating, motifs from classical art and literature.

The `ordinary' nakedness of children either went unrecorded - play being too spontaneous for the still - cumbersome equipment, or unposed nudity being excluded from the bourgeois household - or else was used by early documentarists as an index of social deprivation. Oscar Gustave Reijlander, who produced a number of studies of nude girls in the 1860s, also worked for Barnado, recording the transformation of urban squalor in a series of `before and after' images. These were subsequently printed onto visiting cards and had a wide circulation. …

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