BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 JAN 99
Featured in
Issue 44

The Problematic Photography of Garry Gross

Garry Gross‘s American Fine Arts exhibition “stirred powerful sentiments about exploitation, decency, sexism and the First Amendment”

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 JAN 99

‘From what the court has seen of his work, he is not a pornographer, but a photographer of extraordinary talent... photographs of his three youthful models contrasted with their sultry, sensual appeal... These are not pornographic shots or “nudie pix” - they have no erotic appeal except to possibly perverse minds.’ So Judge Edward Greenfield chose to dispense justice, ruling that Teri Shields, professional stage-mother, would have to abide by the contract she signed allowing Garry Gross full rights to the soapy bathtub photographs he made of her glistening ten year-old daughter Brooke. ‘Sultry, sensual appeal’ but no erotic appeal - plenty of ‘extraordinary talent’? One wonders what planet Judge Greenfield hails from. Without being legally obliged to weigh in on the artistic merits of the photographs, or for that matter to estimate Gross’s talent, Judge Greenfield muddied the waters of what should have been a simple ruling on tort law: the terms of the contractual agreement between Gross and Brooke Shields’ mom. And the terms of that contract are as self-evident today as they were in 1975. The right to exhibit and sell the pictures, whatever their artistic quality, and whatever their pornographic content, rests with Gross.

Recently, Gross exercised his right to exhibit and sell his pictures of Brooke at American Fine Arts and to no one’s surprise stirred powerful sentiments about exploitation, decency, sexism and the First Amendment. On cue, the press and a bewitched public swarmed. But ultimately, these photographs of Brooke - all dolled-up in steamy bathroom poses - are simply what they are, stumbling into line behind Samuel Leon Walker’s daguerreotype of his daughter, Henry Peach Robinson’s photographs based on Greuze’s paintings of young girls, and of course Lewis Carroll’s Alice. In front of Gross goes Sally Mann whose pictures parade the ‘innocence’ of her country-girl daughters, along with the work of a few other like-minded photographers whose names I have long since forgotten.

Gross’s intention in these pictures is parsimonious, predictable and in every instance tedious. He has said that he developed a fascination with the way a four year-old girl asked him for something ‘with a certain flirtatiousness, coquettishness’. In graceless prose he drags us through the unbosoming of his artistic inception: ‘A stereotypic example in such a situation is’, he imagines, ‘one afternoon a girl this age, turned down by her busy mother, wants her father to stop reading and play with her. She climbs up on his lap. What happens is this. There is warmth and physicality and he has a mild arousal response’. In this fantasy, Gross projects mature psychological depth onto a four-year-old in order to justify this mild arousal as involuntary, an arousal whose sole arbiter would be the child. He tells us he is helplessly kindled, just as Judge Greenfield is helplessly inflamed by the aesthetic and sensual ebb and flow of these photographs. But Gross’s comments about arousal show that he is clearly open to the sexual content in Brooke’s pictures and is therefore, in Judge Greenfield's word, ‘perverse’. Gross’s motives, if taken seriously, together with Judge Greenfield's opinion, career us along a perilous and precarious edge.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.