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Irina Inoesco was born in Paris in 1935. When she was 26, she met "the man of my life," and they had a daughter, Eva. The man died early, so she was left with her daughter. In her "Historical Background," Inonesco writes that Eva was born "with pitch-black hair and dark slit eyes, a Chinese little girl" who "turned into the most beautiful little girl of all time." She says that her daughter "personified a modern angel" and her photographing her daughter nude as she grew up is innocent. Indeed, she even claims "in my gaze the greatest love of all took place."
Most readers will be entirely unfamiliar with the rest of Ionesco's work. Her other photography books are not in print but available used at Amazon.com, and one of them goes for several hundred dollars. According to the back cover of the book, Ionesco was called "woman of the year" by Time-Life books in "Photograph Year," in 1977. EVA has a foreword by Graham Ovenden and a preface by A.D. Coleman, who both address in different ways how one might interpret this collection of black and white photographs of a young girl by her mother who is otherwise known for her stylized nude photography. Both pieces are thoughtful and interesting, especially Coleman's. Yet they don't provide many answers for those readers who are unsure how to react to this collection.
In 150 pages, Eva is photographed dressed up and nude, alone and with other models. Her mother singles out the years 1965, 1970, 1975 and 1978 in her written contribution, describing them as times of "great poetic freedom." It is hard to know what she means, but is natural to suppose that those were the years that the photographs were taken. If so, then Eva was about 4, 9, 14 and 17 in these pictures. But it is hard to say how old she was, and in most of these images, she is either a young child or looks like she has barely entered her teens.
Of course, it is not that unusual for a parent to take pictures of his or her children nude, especially when they are very young. Naturists and nudists believe that nudity is natural, and advocate a "clothes-free" lifestyle. However, these are not naturist photographs and Ionesco is certainly not suggesting that we should return to nature in her photographs. These pictures are sexualized, with Eva dressed up in clothes appropriate for older girls or women, in poses that would be more suitable for fashion models. The leave the reader wondering what Ionesco was trying to achieve, and whether to be shocked or admiring or both.
Ionesco's own words about her work are vague and her reference to innocence seems disingenuous. The photograph of the photographer on the front inside book flap shows a dark eyed woman with blonde curly hair, a hand at her throat, with her head tilted up and facing away from the camera, with a white flower in the foreground. The image gives the impression of a passionate, neurotic and unhappy woman prone to melodrama. Maybe I'm projecting, but that's what I see. Of course, a photographer who dresses up her daughter and takes pictures of her in sexually charged poses is likely to be an unusual person. To be realistic though, this desire is not that rare, since so many parents encourage their daughters to enter pageants, where they dress up and perform in ways that make many onlookers unfamiliar with the tradition very uncomfortable. When little JonBenet Ramsay was murdered, much of the publicity around the case centered on the world of pageants she was so immersed in.
Of course, girl pageants don't feature child nudity, but that difference seems irrelevant. The fact that Eva is nude in many of these images makes only a slight difference. What gives them their power and ability to disturb is she is wearing lace and high heels, or ornate jewelry and fishnet stockings. It seems that Ionesco posed her child in ways that she might pose her adult female models, giving her a stern pouty look, staring into the distance, or gazing seductively into the camera. In only one picture does Eva smile, and there she seems like a normal happy girl. In the others, she looks like a creation of her mother, and the effect is sinister.
In places, this must have been Ionesco's intention. In one picture, Eva sits in a brilliant satin dress, fully clothed, wearing a tiara, and her golden locks falling around her face. She sits with a rather blank expression on her face, looking well behaved. But she holds in her hands, on her lap, a human skull. She sits in front of a large fireplace, with a dark picture above the mantelpiece. On either side of her are two nude women holding large lit candles. In front of her is a large turtle. It is a bizarre composition. It is among a series of other photographs where Eva is unclothed, looking pre-pubescent, posing with other nude or partially nude older models. Obviously Eva is the center of attention in all of these pictures, and they are unsettling.
In another series of pictures, Eva poses in a small area backed by curtains with shiny stars attached to them. She wears light chiffon shorts and a top, looking like she is from the nineteenth century. She also has on white socks that are pulled up tight to slightly below her knees, making her look young. She seems to be about 9 years old here. The most disturbing part of the picture is a collection of porcelain boy heads sitting on table, as if they are her audience. In one of these pictures, there is a male doll lying on the floor. Several other pictures in the book also feature dolls and masks.
Images such as these suggest that Ionesco is influenced by surrealism, and she is picturing her daughter as an object of forbidden fantasy. This is confirmed by the gothic themes that run through these pictures, from the simple darkness of the pages, to the large house with old furniture. One picture even features a black raven, stuffed. It is impossible to deny that Ionesco is depicting her daughter as an object of sexual desire, but she is doing far more than that. She manages to disturb the aesthetic of gothic chic, making it far less palatable. The ultimate effect is not so much to eroticize her daughter but rather to make us question the future that her daughter faces as she moves into adult life. It is very difficult to be enthusiastic about the trappings of femininity after looking over these pictures.
There is little to suggest that Ionesco has a political or feminist aim with this collection. Rather, the motivation seems much more personal, a projection of her own feelings about herself and the life her daughter will live when she grows up. These images are full of a sense of decadence laid bare. There's no celebration of life here, and indeed, there is hardly any sense of the erotic. EVA conveys an impending doom. Her mother is right that Eva herself does seem innocent, but these photographs make a prediction of corruption. It is the most depressing collection of images I've seen in recent years.
This very fact of the emotional power of the work testifies to its artistic strength. Of course, the fact that the images contain child nudity mean that it can be appropriated for fetishistic purposes, but that is true of any image of children. This collection is utterly distinct, very different from most other photographers of children. In his foreword, Ovenden refers to Edgar Allen Poe, and this seems appropriate. The pictures seem to belong to another time, and it is puzzling that they were taken in the 1960s and 1970s, since they give so little reflection of those decades. They seem to be the product of isolation from the contemporary world, and they have a haunting effect, as if Dickens' Miss Haversham took over Charles Dodgson's photography. That is why EVA seems the product of a twisted imagination, and is a difficult book to examine carefully.
© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.