A Picture of Innocence?

Chris Townsend focuses on the recent furore surrounding child nude photography and discovers that our forebears were not so camera-shy.

A 50s baby, at a few months old I was photographed naked on the hearth-rug in our front room. Such images were a common-place in that decade: cliched. Thousands of such pictures must have been taken. Thousands of others record children and adolescents playing unclothed in suburban gardens. There is nothing out of the ordinary in such images. These pictures document visions of seemingly innocent, untroubled childhoods.

What happened recently to the newsreader Julia Somerville, her partner Jeremy Dixon, and Somerville's daughter, demonstrates that attitudes have changed. Some commercial photographic processors have codes of practice under which they will not develop photographs of naked children, others rely on the gut feelings of their staff. In some cases they will refer 'questionable' material to the relevant authorities. And if that happens the family becomes tangled up with the law, and in its wake the intervention of social workers, psychiatrists and a battery of 'experts'. Such events are surprisingly common, but not always so easily justified. We only heard about the Somerville case because one of the protagonists is a public figure.

For my parents, and for the generations that preceded them, photographs of naked children were either amusing moments of naivete – future memories in the photo album – or else sublime representations of an ephemeral, unconscious, beauty. In British society, and not coincidentally in American culture, since the late 1970s photographs of naked children have become part of a moral climate which sees them as representations of sexual abuse and predatory adult desire.

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