Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood

Accusations of child pornography only partially or tangentially involving photography, and that do not involve the display of genitals, can still be reasonably negotiated. In May of 1994, residents of Brookline, Massachusetts were startled to find two additional traffic signals at one of their busy street corners. Instead of the usual walk / don’t walk signs, the signals flashed two quasi-photographic images of a naked mother and child. In both images the mother was restraining the child holding its arm or wrapping her arms around it. I say “it” because both figures were posed so that no genitals were visible. At first some viewers could not tell whether even the adult was male or female. The signals were a public project by local artist Denise Marika, funded with $1,500¬†in state arts lottery money allotted by the Brookline Council on the Arts and Humanities. Brookline viewers described the work variously as “out of place,” “isn’t the least bit suggestive or erotic,” “offensive,” “close, but I don’t think it crosses the line,” “not something I get a good feeling about,” “disgusting.” One member of the arts grant committee joked: “The results are mixed. Half the people are holding onto their kids. But so far, nobody’s taken off their clothes.” Newspapers and television heralded the controversy. The town’s transportation director had never gotten so many calls. Some residents demanded the work’s removal. A town meeting was called to discuss the installation. Marika explained her intentions and goals. She managed to soften even her fiercest opponent, the president of a local Parent Teacher Organization.
The twelve-inch square images, transferred onto acetate, had originally been photographs Marika took of herself and her son. She wanted her figures undressed to convey the universal meaning of her message about maternal protection from danger, a message she felt belonged in the public domain. Marika, when preparing an installation like¬†Crossing, takes roll after roll of film in order to obtain an impersonal image of rote repetition, the opposite of personal documentation. The fact that the image was once a photograph of herself and her child is “irrelevant,” in her opinion, to the final work.