The Eye of the Beholder

''Unholy!'' the Middle Tennessee Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families calls this work. Of course, the law presumes to operate on a less consecrated plane. Barnes & Noble is charged with violating Tennessee Statute 39-17-1004, otherwise known as ''aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor.'' No doubt this would astonish Sturges and Hamilton, who say they are scrupulous about obtaining parental consent. Sturges even asks his subject's permission whenever he exhibits an image.

Of course, jurors may conclude that these subjects are incapable of giving consent. Yet if mere nudity in a child is equated with sexual exploitation, every mom or pop who ever snapped their kid in the bathtub or with diapers down is a pornographer. The new laws have already led to a number of arrests of parents who sent film of their children to photo labs. Bruce Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families, warns parents to ''be careful so that they avoid creating child porn.'' If you must take pictures of your naked child, stick to ''the face, arms, legs, buttocks. I would not take a picture of the kid's genitals.''

Federal law makes it a serious felony to sell or possess ''lascivious'' images of the genitals of anyone under 18. The ambiguity of this verbot is even more troubling than its sweeping nature. Just what the word lascivious means when it comes to children is all but impossible to say, since most people would deny having any sexual response to immature genitals--yet we're supposed to know it when we see it.

This morass of meaning threatens to criminalize an entire tradition in photography, from the 19th-century studies of bare boys at the swimming hole by Thomas Eakins, to the elegaic portraits of naked wraiths in laurel wreaths by Baron Von Gloden, to the Jazz Age images of frolicking lads by Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston (who photographed the genitals of his own young son). Collectors of these works are now potentially guilty of possessing child pornography. Lest you think the threat is academic, consider the reaction of police in Oklahoma City who decided that the film The Tin Drum is contraband because it shows the sexual initiation of a 14-year-old boy. Cops knocked on doors to confiscate copies of the film, after obtaining the names of people who had rented it from Blockbuster.

What a delicious irony that this issue should come to trial in a state like Tennessee, where the age of consent is only 13. But then, the South is the birthplace of the child pageant, and even in the age of JonBenet, that spectacle remains a rite of passage for many little girls. In this crinoline hothouse, it's not childhood sexuality that rouses the righteous, but art that forces adults to confront the nature of their own desire.

''It's erotic, there's no question about it,'' says David Hamilton. ''That's my job.'' His oeuvre includes everything from Venice to flowers, but as he freely admits, ''My theme is young girls.''

Hamilton's Web site (www.hamilton-archives.com) offers ruminations on the difference between erotica and pornography. It all comes down to ''good taste''--that and a gauzy lens, a penchant for posing models with flowers in their hair, and a Bartlett's worth of poetic epigrams. His sensitivity to context--or perhaps an instinct for self-preservation--inspired Hamilton to demand that the Voice crop the picture from his book that appears on the cover of this issue. ''It's obviously erotic,'' he explained, ''so let's not push it.''

Knowing precisely how to push a certain button is the essence of Hamilton's art. Everything about his work evokes the arcadian world of pre-Playboy stroke books, from the pastel settings to a text that speaks of ''the essence of virginity; the locked door behind which the young girl keeps the very best of herself: her wonderful daydreams and her eternal search for the perfect male.'' With such pretensions, no wonder Hamilton has little modesty about his place in nymphet history. ''There's only three of us in this business,'' he proclaims. ''Nabokov penned it, Balthus painted it, and I photographed it.''

To understand how far Hamilton's aesthetic is from Mann's, consider what she has written about her children in her book Immediate Family: ''Their strength and confidence, there to be seen in their eyes, are compelling--for nothing is so seductive as a gift casually possessed.'' That Terry can tar these utterly different artists with the same black bar suggests that something more fundamental than a desire to protect children is at work.

What these photographs produce is a complex of emotions that well up from below the surface of arousal. Is it empathy, memory, shame, or lust? The closer these images come to the brink of puberty, the more difficult the question becomes, for what they reveal is the distinction between a moral concept like the age of consent and the boundless contours of desire. Art has the power to rip away the veil of denial, baring the full, forbidden face of what we feel.

Not that these photographers share a common strategy. Hamilton soothes as he arouses, marshaling the cliches of innocence to shield the psyche from any guilt, not to mention awareness. Sturges opts for a starker texture and a more intimate regard, skirting what one critic rightly calls a ''vapid prettiness.'' As for Mann, the power of her pictures lies in their radical tangibility. Her children are flesh, blood, and will; if that seems sexual, the artist dares you to accept responsibility.

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