In September 1996, Rosie Bowdrey, at the time 22 years old, told the UK newspaper, the Independent, the following about a controversial photograph taken of her when she was three years old by Robert Mapplethorpe: "I always say that the only unnatural thing about that photo was that I was wearing a dress - in fact there are very few pictures of me under the age of five where I am fully clothed." Bowdrey was referring to a photograph, now in the permanent collection of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, "Rosie, 1976", wherein she is sitting on an ornate garden bench, a propped-up knee inadvertently revealing her lack of underpants. In the interview, Bowdrey informs the Independent that the day Mapplethorpe shot the image was "scorching hot", and she had just emerged from the pool and her mother had to chase her to make her put on a dress. Mapplethorpe shot the image just after she put the dress on. Bowdrey says that immediately after the photo was taken, the dress came off. The Bowdrey interview ran in the Independent a week after the Hayward Gallery in London was advised by police to remove the photograph from its forthcoming Mapplethorpe exhibition.
Fast forward 18 years to an almost identical situation taking place today, albeit one stoked to a frenzied froth by indignant church ladies and internet hall monitors with suspect tags like "Blowjob Pig", "ativan annie" and "TitWitch". Photographer Wyatt Neumann stands in a Soho gallery and discusses his 2 year old daughter Stella's penchant for taking her dress off during a recent road trip the two took together that Neumann documented on his Instagram account. Neumann's photographs are currently on view at The Safari Gallery at 355 West Broadway until August 21st. The show, "I Feel Sorry For Your Children: The Sexualization of Innocence in America" is Neumann's counterpoint to the anonymous herd of vituperative scolds who made it their mission to get his Instagram and Facebook sites, and, nearly, his website, shut down. Through a campaign of relentless, and oftentimes vulgar protestations against what they saw as a father's exploitation of his own children's innocence, the heavy axe of censorship fell upon the head of an artist and blocked his right of self expression.
Neumann's Instagram and Facebook accounts have since been reinstated, but he has been duly warned against any further posting of nude photos of his children. The hue and cry that raged across the internet in response to Neumann's pictures of his kids was not the reasoned or particularly articulate argument of rational souls. The safety of internet anonymity seemed to encourage many of the commenters to indulge in aggressive and profanity laden language, particularly when those comments referenced the photographer and his wife. The children were not spared either, as withering and dire predictions for their futures were posted, along with many comments about how they were now, thanks to their "narcissistic father", fodder for pedophiles and assorted warped pervs on the internet. One such comment, posted by "Expecto Patronum", on April 25th, 2014, states: "This guy makes me weep for all of humanity. What is wrong with the world when a guy like this gets to be a parent, while other people struggle with infertility?" Commenter "SelenaKyle", after a profanity laced rant in which she accuses Neumann of "laying it all out for pedophiliacs" finished up by calling him a "f#$king pi#%e of s%&t". Pot, meet kettle.
Neumann and his photographs became the subject of an internet thread on Get Off My Internets, or GOMI, a site that claims its mission statement thus: "Started in 2009, and originally started out snarking about various online personalities." Apparently it was members of this site that took up the cause of alerting Instagram, and its overlord, Facebook, about what they saw as Neumann's photographic transgressions. He was summarily booted from both sites. The photographer realized this had become an issue about "freedom of expression, the freedom of speech, the freedom to be who you want to be, and to live freely." The idea for the Soho exhibition was born of Neumann's inherent inclination, which would be that of any self-respecting American citizen, to defend those rights, while at the same time illustrating that "we risk losing our individualism if we subject ourselves to the moral authority of the majority." Indeed, most disturbing when the members of that majority hide behind anonymous monikers like "tunawhiskers", "Childlike Empress" and "dirtclod".
A limited edition book is for sale at The Safari Gallery of Neumann's photographs from the road trip he took with Stella, which is the source of all the photos in the exhibit as well as the censorship. Amidst the images of his 2 year old daughter are riveting and powerful landscapes of the American West that were the actual goal of the fine art photographer's journey. There are indeed a few shots of Stella without her clothes, but one would be hard pressed to describe the ordinary acts of childhood depicted in the photographs as salacious or titillating. The internet is rife with such family photos, shot by amateur and pro alike. The majority of the images in the collection reveal a child who seems to be living the type of idyllic life children of thoughtful and creative parents are sometimes exposed to. Neumann's approach to fatherhood is partly motivated by the fact that he tragically lost his own father to a work related accident when he was 3 years old. What he does know of his father he learned from the extant archives of his father's life, such as college notebooks and photographs. This is one impetus behind his documenting his kids lives, such as a recent month long trip the family took to Cambodia. Neumann is determined to "showcase the lives they get to live, express myself, and catalog the reality of my children's experience."
The opening of "I Feel Sorry For Your Children: The Sexualization of Innocence in America" at The Safari Gallery last Thursday night was full of parents and their kids. Neumann and his wife have taken a traditional approach to child rearing, deciding who would work and who would be home with the kids. Stella and her 5 year old brother, Takota, are growing up with the luxury of a mother who is with them all day, as well as a father who involves them in as many of his projects as possible. There is no hired surrogate in their lives. Neumann explains the subtitle of his show in the Artist Statement at the end of his book: "What's troubling is the abject reviling of the human body, the intense and overt sexualization of the natural form, especially the naked bodies of carefree young children, who have yet to feel the burden of institutionalized body image awareness and the embarrassment that comes with adolescence. My children are free, they live without shame." The artist closes his statement by posing the following questions: "So the choice seems clear: do we live in fear and condemnation? Or do we celebrate one another, and ourselves, in this life? I choose to believe in our ability to fight fear with love, ignorance with understanding, and to unite rather than divide. But you be the judge...is this pornography, art, expression, or exploitation. It's up to us to either cower in fear, or liberate ourselves and live."
"I Feel Sorry For Your Children: The Sexualization of Innocence in America" will be on view at The Safari Gallery, an exhibition space available for events and photography shoots, until August 21st, 2014.
The Safari Gallery
355 West Broadway
New York, NY 10012
917 670 6999