New York

Garry Gross

American Fine Arts

Fashion photographer Garry Gross had the idea, back in the freewheeling ’70s, of doing an arty piece about “the woman within the child,” to capture the “flirtatiousness” and “coquettishness” he observed in little girls. He hired an exceptionally lovely Ford model, age ten, and, after obtaining a release from her mother, photographed the tyke nude in a bathtub, decked out in makeup and jewelry and adopting a variety of slinky poses. For all their supposed playfulness, the photographs had the trappings of a standard soft-core porn shoot—billowing steam, spritzing shower head, telephone by the tub—and the gamine’s adult demeanor gave the pictures an undeniable charge. Several were published in a Playboy one-off publication called Sugar & Spice (among other places) and reportedly seen by French director Louis Malle, who cast the model as a child prostitute in his 1978 film Pretty Baby.

The year the movie came out, the girl (you know who she is, of course) appeared, with her mother, on the cover of New York magazine, accompanied by the caption “Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it’s swell.” After Malle’s film catapulted Shields to worldwide celebrity, however, Mom didn’t think it was so swell after all, and she sued Gross to suppress the photographs. After several years in court, Gross won the rights to the images, and exhibited them at an uptown gallery in 1985. The opening at the Neikrug Gallery was packed, but a photography magazine cancelled a planned spread on the pictures around the same time, candidly admitting that it was “an election year” and “child abuse [was] a big issue.”

Now, thirteen years later, the images are back, and as loaded as ever. Since they were first taken, several things have made them relevant to a downtown context. One of the shots—an almost-full-frontal view of Shields with her body strangely torqued—was famously rephotographed by Richard Prince in 1983 and exhibited all by itself in a Lower East Side storefront under the title Spiritual America. (The image now resides in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum.) In the meantime, Shields has continued her upward climb, becoming a star of television and the wife of tennis star Andre Agassi. And the brouhaha over Pretty Baby seems polite compared to the current hysteria over kiddie porn (Steven Meisel’s Calvin Klein ads, Lolita, Jock Sturges, Internet raids, and so on).

Not only time but the activism of the religious right and the anti-porn left have unquestionably altered the climate in which we view pictures like these. These new C-prints are crisp, fleshy, and sensuous and the young Shields is quite charismatic, but let’s face it, the main reason the pictures still hold sway is not the production values or “star power,” but the disturbing spectacle of the child hooker teasing the viewer while Mom stands proudly off-camera. Looking back on the artifacts of our “liberated” past, we are like nervous Victorian scholars confronting the depravity of Pompeian statuary, if across a gap of a quarter century rather than millennia. The magazine clippings, press releases, and court documents that the gallery posted on one wall cut two ways: they defused some of the tension (and may have even kept the doors from being padlocked by the vice squad), but they also robbed the show of the ambiguous charge Prince’s deadpan appropriation packed a decade and a half ago.

Tom Moody