Comparisons are already being made and lines are already being drawn between the Brooke Shields photograph at the Tate and the Bill Henson debacle last year. conservatives and media alike will be debating the differences are between the different cases and trying to make them both fit the same mould. Many readers here will remember my extensive and vehement coverage of the Henson controversy last year. Some may even be wondering at my stance on this one when I defended Henson so ardently last year.
There are many reasons why these two cases are so very different. nevertheless the gauntlet will be thrown and the aspersions will be cast so I would like to present my reasons why these two cases are so very very different.
Bill Henson works closely with the model and their families. everything is legal, carefully planned and structured around the needs of the model. The model and families are educated in his processes and are fully aware of the situaton. The model in the photograph at the center of the controversy last year was interviewed and mentioned how she discussed it carefully with her family and friends, she considered all sides and weighed up how she would feel about it later down the track. her consent was critical to the creation of the artwork.
Gary Gross obtained the rights to photograph Brooke Shields and distribute the photograph from her mother. Judging by the legal battles and Brooke’s attempts to win back the rights and retrieve the negatives she was not involved in the consent process at all. she was probably not informed of her options or about the distribution rights. The photograph that was going to be displayed at the Tate is a different situation. the rights were purchased from Gross by Prince. there is no record (that I can find) of Shields consenting to the exchange of rights or the revisioning of the original. I would be very interested to hear about her level of involvement and her feelings about the Prince version and of the rights exchange.
The artworks in the controversial series by Bill Henson were seized because it was believed they were pornographic. the Classifications bureau ruled that only one warranted as much as a PG rating. These artworks are not sexualized images of minors. The original Gross photograph is very sexualized. Brooke has been made up and oiled to look like a tiny porn star. her pose is suggestive and I believe the intent of the work was to titillate and arouse. this is a sexualized image of a minor. if you are in doubt imagine an adult in the same situations, poses and lighting. The Prince photograph Spiritual America is in-between. it is sexualized but appears to condemn, rather than laud, the fact.
In this situation context is key. The Bill Henson artworks were displayed as a series in a solo exhibition. There were no other works to detract from the central display and message of the artworks. The original Gross photograph was paid for by playboy and published in playboy subsidiaries. Spiritual America was to be presented in a private room in an exhibition that had several suggestive and explicit images. Penetration, porn and more were presented in the same exhibition. this establishes a mindset and a context to the work. If the piece had been displayed in a series of photographs of celebrities or in an exhibiton condemning child prostitution and pornography then the context would have shifted. it would have been seen in a different light (although still contentious – it’s a very difficult piece)
This may be pure bias, but I believe it needs to be pointed out. one is a photograph of somebody elses work. it is a revision, not a complete original. it has elevated the original and added an emotional quality however the artisty in Bill Henson’s artworks is undeniable. from composition to lighting Bill Henson’s work is original, well crafted and achingly beautiful. the two are not comparable images.