Innocent?
Mark Morris looks at the Tierney Gearon controversy

Don't get me wrong: I don't think Tierney Gearon's photos should be torn off the Saatchi Gallery walls or scrutinised by the police. And the police certainly shouldn't be reacting to the latest tactic in the News Of The World's deeply unsavoury campaign against paedophiles. I'm largely in favour of as little censorship as possible, although I think a dogmatic attachment to free speech can have its dangers, too.

The defence of Gearon and her pictures of her children has been pretty robust, from the Saatchi Gallery ignoring police threats to keep the two offending photos on the wall, to the Guardian weighing in on Gearon's side, and a foaming Germaine Greer in full rant on Newsnight. The argument is this: Gearon's pictures of her kids are 'happy family snapshots' (The Observer) and only a really twisted person could read anything more into them.

Even if I had never seen the photos, I would have had problems with that position. If Gearon's pictures are only innocent snapshots, what on earth are they doing blown up hundreds of times to be displayed on the walls of London's most famous - and most notorious - private art gallery? It's worth knowing that Gearon's photos are only part of an exhibition - I Am Camera - an exhibition that also contains Richard Billingham's deeply disturbing photos of his family, a typical Nan Goldin selection of trannies, junkies and downtown bohos and Jessica Craig-Martin's brilliant, grotesque satirical pictures of ladies who lunch. If Gearon's pictures were just like your family's old holiday snaps - I hope I'm not assuming too much here - then would be in mighty strange company.

But I don't think Gearon's pictures are out of sync with their companions. I went I Am A Camera about three weeks ago, I guess, long before Murdoch's hound dogs called in the Met. And I found Gearon's pictures disturbing. She insists they aren't posed, but they feel posed: static, unkinetic and rather airless. It's clearly accidental, but the now notorious picture of two naked children wearing masks is very close to Chris Cunningham's Aphex Twin work. Let me rephrase that: the resemblance was probably accidental to the artist, but it won't have been to the show's curator.

I really can't see how anyone could find the image - the children's faced blanked out by these ugly masks, meaning the only way they can be distinguished is by their gender - charming or cheery. There is another shot - not one that the police have drawn attention to - of the kids in the bath that seemed to me to be sexualising the children. I didn't like Gearon's photos much as photos, and I didn't like the mood of them either. But I wouldn't have considered much if the friend I went to the exhibition with hadn't asked me what I thought. I said I thought they were unsettling. As it happens, Alice is a child psychologist and has strong, but reasonably complex, views on these issues. She agreed that there was something weird about the Gearon pictures, something that left us both uneasy. As it happened, when left the gallery, we were arguing about issues of consent and whether it is right to use your family as subject matter - but in the context of Richard Billingham's work, not Tierney Gearon's.

It's worth repeating that I think Gearon should be allowed to show her photos. But I also feel that liberals, and people who like art, are doing themselves a disservice by pretending that this is the same as Julia Somerville getting prosecuted because some kid who worked at Boots thought it was weird that somebody should have naked photos of their own kids. Before you even discuss the pictures, there is the inescapable fact that they are being displayed in a public space. It is also true that Gearon is a skilful enough photographer for the pictures not to resemble any old snaps, no matter what she says.

Which is not to say that I imagine for a moment that the nation's child molesting classes are swarming around Swiss Cottage, getting lost - everyone does - on the way to the Saatchi Gallery to look at three or four strange photos - letting alone shelling out whatever ridiculous price they are charging for the catalogue. I'm sure, sadly, they have far easier ways of getting their kicks.

Mark Morris 2001


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