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Even In Art, ‘Free Speech’ Can’t Override Consent

Michael E. Northrup’s ‘Dream Away’ turns consent into an illusion.

A woman sitting on a toilet in a wedding gown next to a litter box. A woman, naked, lying on a settee. A pregnant woman dressed in a bathing suit. A woman pumping breast milk. A woman lying next to a small child and a cut-out skeleton. And 61 more photographs featuring the same woman in a range of states of undress, most featuring the subject’s face either cut from the frame or obscured.

This is what makes up Michael E. Northrup’s Dream Away, published last month to acclaim from the New Yorker and the Guardian, among others. The experience of looking at the work is a little unnerving: Vogue Italia acknowledged the discomfiting nature of the images, saying “you’re not sure you’re allowed to but nonetheless you can’t look away.” That seems to be the point.

The woman in Dream Away is Northrup’s ex-wife, and the pictures were taken over the course of their relationship — they met in 1976, married in 1978, and divorced by 1988. The domestic intimacy of the images is all part of the 1960s snapshot aesthetic that Northrup himself has expressed affinity for. A commercial artist as well as art photographer, much of his work over the past decades has played with this style of image-making, while also experimenting with light and flash. He’s certainly quite successful at making the viewer feel like they are getting a long glimpse at private moments.

But it is nearly impossible to look at the works that make up Dream Away and not think about the relationship between the photographer and the photographed. Looking at the photos allows the viewer into an intimate relationship, a marriage that is now over.

Thing is, in the discussion of these “arrestingly intimate” images, there appears a comment from the artist that might give one pause. “She hasn’t seen it yet,” he says in an interview with Sleek, “if she likes it that would make me immensely happy, and if she doesn’t, that’s her problem.”

Looking at the photos allows the viewer into an intimate relationship, a marriage that is now over. Click To Tweet

Though there’s no mention in any of the articles about what the woman in the photos might think about being in said photos, a quick Google search reveals that his ex-wife did, and perhaps still does, have a problem. Back in 2013, in a short email exchange published on a photography blog, Northrup writes about how his wife had asked for these images not to be published. Northrup asked for permission and received a no in response. On Twitter, Alexandra Schwartz, who wrote the piece about Dream Away for the New Yorker, revealed that Northrup received a refusal for an initial edit and that this is a new set of photographs. But that doesn’t indicate permission.

Before continuing, it should be said that this is not an attempt to suggest that the book should not have been published and that its existence is somehow illegal. It’s more a question of what it means to ask someone a question, not receive the answer you want, and then move ahead. What are the ethics of producing this type of work? And what does it say about the relationship between a male photographer and a female subject?

Northrup’s personal, written admission of his ex-wife’s refusal was then accompanied by a hearty helping of reasons why, as an artist, he has a right to publish his images: “I have a copyright lawyer here who says my first amendment rights trumps her rights to privacy as long as I meet some requirements.” He then expresses the opinion that he is “the creator” and “in the art world, once you pose with the understanding of the intentions of the photographer, then you’re giving rights.”

Reflecting a problematic view that if a woman says yes to one man in one circumstance, that should do for all men and if circumstances change, Northrup continues that since his ex-wife posed naked for another photographer and that photo has circulated without complaint, he should have no problem. Reading argument after argument — at one point Northrup says that his ex is “immoral” for denying his request for permission — it is hard not to feel that this is the attitude of a man who feels that he has a right to more than just a photograph. In the ensuing discussion (all amongst men, it should be noted), it is suggested consistently that the photographer’s rights trump that of the subject.

Max Houghton is a professor of photography at the London College of Communication, and she runs their master’s program in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. She has spent a great deal of time thinking about the issues around photography and the representation of women both in images and in the field in general, recently publishing  Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now alongside Fiona Rogers. When asked about Dream Away and the issue of consent, “for me,” she says, “it is about this absolutely outrageous sense of entitlement.”

“I really hated the way that he brought up the fact that she posed for other people naked,” she says. “I detested the fact that he used that as if to say she’ll show herself anywhere. It just is not relevant. The guy literally thinks that he has the divine right because they were once married to do whatever he wanted.”

The female voice is pushed aside or silenced and the male project becomes all-encompassing. For Northrup, this isn’t work that has come out of a relationship between two people. This isn’t a creative partnership, perhaps like that of Emmet and Edith Gowin, which Houghton provides as a comparative example of photographer husband and photographed wife. “Close human relationships can be the most beautiful places to explore intimacy and what that is. It can be consensual,” Houghton explains. “But these things can change over time. Even if it is the male with the camera, with the power, with the framing, with everything, it’s not necessarily problematic from the word go.”

This is about an absolutely outrageous sense of entitlement. Click To Tweet

Instead, Northrup’s ex-wife simply becomes a vehicle for Northrup’s creative practice. “I’m also not sure why the concern is so heavy to the side of the subject instead of the photographer,” he complains, in the comment section of photographer Jin Zhu’s no longer active blog that took him to task for his perspective. “If I publish, she looses [sic] nothing. I would not publish images that I thought might damage her situation. And if you llook [sic] at the images I think you’d have trouble finding anything demeaning in them. If I don’t publish I loose [sic] 10 years of part of my life and the ability to share my work. I loose [sic] my freedom of speech.”

But we still do not have his ex-wife’s opinion in all of this, the simple fact of whether or not she’s okay with her often nude body being displayed in public. Considering this, it’s not hard to understand why so many images cut chunks of his ex-wife out of the picture. When she has a voice — a voice that denies his request for permission — she becomes a hindrance, an immoral denier of his free speech, of his art, of his solo “creation.” This attitude requires that he see her as nothing but an object, and he does, stating that the photographs don’t even display his ex-wife at all. They “have [her] likeness but that is only through the illusion of the photo.”

When she has a voice — a voice that denies his request for permission — she becomes a hindrance, an immoral denier of his free speech, of his art, of his solo “creation.”

No matter how much Northrup would like to pretend otherwise, the photographs in Dream Away did require two people to be made. Northrup can choose which photos to include and audiences can argue whether or not the photos are defamatory (which has occurred online), but this leaves out the other person — the one who was photographed repeatedly for a decade starting over 40 years ago. Northrup does not, in any discussion that he has had online, seem to recognize his own privileged position as artist, as photographer. Reflecting what has become a familiar men’s rights refrain, he sees the woman as being all powerful simply for denying him that which he feels entitled to.

Northrup complains that his ex-wife doesn’t have a good reason for questioning his publication of these photographs, but what is his reason for insisting? And why is it any more valid?

Beyond this, however, is perhaps an even wider question: What societal forces have allowed Northup to feel entitled and justified in his defense of his work? He clearly does not recognize the power and privilege that he holds as the man behind the camera. As Houghton puts it, “anyone can make a nice image these days, really. And so we do need to be asking more of people who choose to call themselves a photographer, an artist, a creator. If you are going to use those terms, they are loaded terms, they are privileged terms, and so what are you doing to earn that privilege?”