Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Balancing act

This article in The Times a few days ago caught my eye. I think any photographers shooting their own kids as part of a public body of work should read it. Granted it represents a worst case scenario, but the ethical issue is always there. What is the balance between the parental urge to photograph children and a kid's right to control his or her own image?

Larry Rivers and his daughter Emma, 1981, by Daria Deshuk

I think everyone photographing their own kids has to find that balance on their own, maybe in coordination with their children. For someone like Sally Mann the balance is slightly more invasive. For someone like Elizabeth Fleming or Byron Wolfe it's probably more accommodating of personal space.

The thing that makes the Rivers story so riveting is that he didn't have any sense of balance. To him his kids were like paints or fabrics, pure property to use as he saw fit and screw the personal ramifications. The irony is that it may have made his work stronger —or at least less filtered— and it's intriguing to wonder if it takes that level of tunnel-vision to really break through as an artist. Maybe. But at what cost? The whole situation seems to encapsulate the classic dilemma. How much of your soul would you sell to secure a place in history?

The reason this issues strikes such a chord with me is that I photograph my own kids. I have always done that but until recently I never made the images public. I kept them in a private scrapbook, just as most families do. I think the main reason I've put them out now there is that many of them are my favorite photos and they seem to form a cohesive body of work. It seems silly to keep them hidden. But even then there are limits. I don't publicize disparaging or explicit shots. Sometimes the photos poke fun, but hopefully not in a mean way. Sometimes the kids are naked but not in any perverse way. If these limits make the work tamer and less racy, that's fine.

Thinking about all of this today as I hang out with my kids and my cameras in the Maine backwoods.

Addendum 7/18: Yesterday the Times posted an update on this story.


Elizabeth Fleming said...

First, thanks for the mention. Interesting that you should post this today--I was just pondering last night the issues of privacy surrounding photographing one's own children. I shot an image last month that I love; it's not racy by any means, but it definitely rides a certain line. I won't put it on the web because I'm with you on the concept of limits. I like what you say about it being ok to be more tame; this bit of privacy may be just the thing that makes the work "ours." It's ingrained in my personality to keep some things hidden, so to show pictures that were more explicit would go against part of the concept, if that makes sense. I also appreciate you mentioning me perhaps being more "accommodating of personal space"--what I like about that phrase is it connotes that my children are their own individual selves, and I really do see them that way, which is another dimension of my photographs.

Anyhow, nice to hear another parent/photographer's perspective. And don't even get me started on the Rivers article...

Thanks again,


Kate Wilhelm said...

To my mind, the issue referenced in the article is a bit broader than the question of making pictures of your kids public. The central issue seems to me to be more about the production of the work. It sounds like the daughters were coerced into producing the work, and the fact that it's potentially public just perpetuates the pain she already experienced with the initial filming.

I often think that great artists are not always (ever?) great people or great parents. They're probably great artists because they choose their art over other priorities, including parenting. I dont' want to generalize, but even without the potential problem of exploitation, making good art can often conflict with being a good parent.

I photograph my son and I publish the photos online, but I also listen to him when he says he doesn't want a picture taken. (Sadly, this happens a lot, but it also opens things up in terms of collaboration -- I think Timothy Archibald's Echolilia is a great example and inspiration of how that could work.)

Blake Andrews said...

You're right that there are a few issues bundled here. Whether or not to show private photos is one. Another one brought up in the Rivers article is the question of what should happen to the work after the artist dies. Can the historical value of something ever outweigh privacy concerns?

The Rivers case seems pretty cut-and-dried to me. The daughters should gain control of their images. But what if it was a bit messier? What if we discovered Abe Lincoln had a secret family? Would that family have the right to keep related writings private or would historians have a right to see them?

I think the same issue comes up today with image copyright and public domain. When if ever do artists rights to their own images get trumped by the historical value of having them in the public domain?

jon pack said...

This makes me think of Tierney Gearon and the Mother Project documentary. It's a worth a watch, if you haven't seen it. She's working out her own issues by documenting (exploiting?) her mother and children.



Marilyn Andrews said...

Blake - It was disturbing to read the Rivers article in the NYTimes last week - I have always liked his work, but I probably wouldn't have liked him. It's the dichotomy that emerges when you love what someone does, but their personal flaws are so over the top that it taints your appreciation of the work itself. For example, Caravaggio's lifestyle was a disaster but his paintings are divine. What do you do with the fact that Larry Rivers emotionally abused his daughters but created like a genius? Should I like what he made any the less?

And PS, how can I order the London exhibit book in dollars and not pounds?

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claire said...

I met a photographer a while ago who had an interesting story. He photographed his daughter from the day she was born. He frequently sells his images to photo agencies and he found they were particularly interested in one of the pictures. It didn't show his daughters face, just her feet as she was on a swing in the park and of course the you could also see his own silhouette where the shape of the camera was visible. Later on he was shocked to find this photo had been used for a campaign highlighting paedophilia across the globe. It is crazy where photos can end up and also how something innocent can be misconstrued.

Alisha Stamper said...

oh gosh. so glad to read all the comments because i think it kept me from lashing out about this. Totally bogus!

I think it is interesting to consider historical implications as well as life/work. I don't think being an awful parent is expected of great artists. I think parenthood, really truly watching one's children grow, their interests, striving to be kind, ALL of those attributes heighten our abilities as artists to make better work (I completely see this in elizabeth's work). You just don't get much sleep.