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Maxwell is a photographer of celebrities for national magazines -- you have probably seen some of his pictures, even if you didn't know that he took them. But he does some of his "serious" photographs through the nineteenth-century method called "ambrotype." By forsaking modern technology, Maxwell gives many of his pictures a very distinctive look, both because of the texture of the photograph and the pose of his models. There's a power in these images, whether they are human, animal, or still-lives. Take for instance one of the several images of flowers (139). The picture looks old, and some of the flowers themselves are flopped over, having lost their life. The lighting is unusual, and not all the flowers are in complete focus. There's something mystical and unsettling about this image. Similar qualities make Maxwell's pictures of his baby-sitter Penny disturbing. She is naked; on one (110) she is on all-fours facing away from the camera, leaving nothing to the imagination; and on another (111) she kneels on a couch, leaning backwards, staring wild-eyed at the camera like a taxidermist's recent creation. The dog (57) and goat (99) look similarly glassy-eyed. The squid in a vase (43) with its tentacles draped like leaves over the side of the glass seems contrived yet still effective. His tulips and berries (15) and lemons (129) seem metallic and other-worldly.
The majority of the photos are clearly done in this "old fashioned" format and they look appropriately flawed and stylized. But other photos here look more modern, in crystal clear focus, and with no discernible blemishes in the image. The nudes of Angelica, Mariah, and Shauna, for example, are erotic in their simple portrayal of beautiful bodies in subtle grays. They aren't disturbing in any way; indeed they are most tasteful. His image of exotic mushrooms (23), luminous white with long stems against a black background is utterly beautiful, and a similar image of bok choy (62) is comparable in its aesthetics. A picture of spoons (37) hung by clothespins is unusual and almost sensual. Maxwell is an impressive craftsman.
So these photos are an interesting mix of an abstract beauty and a more earthy, menacing eroticism. This comes out in his pictures of young children, especially his sons. Some times they are unclothed, but even when clothed there is an erotic charge to these pictures. Partly this is because they appear alongside images of beautiful naked women, but they would have this quality even if viewed in isolation. Monica (p. 73), who might be ten years old, stares into the camera with a watchful wisdom that belies her freckles. Her shoulder length hair is tucked behind her ear on the left side, but a few straggles escape. It's an image to stop you in your tracks, so simple, and yet it so rare to see a child depicted so sympathetically.
The sensuality of children is more explicit in many of the other pictures. Dos Etude, San Diego, and Couces Epaules, San Diego, (30 & 31) are a pair of pictures of backs, with a dark black background. On the left, a naked figure, probably a woman, sits holding her knee to her chest, looking a little formless. We cannot see the figure's head. This image seems only to be there in order to serve as a contrast to the one on the right, of a boy's back. My guess is that it his son Justin, identified in other titles of photographs (such as Justin & Leo Running, 27). His head is bent down slightly, highlighting the nape of his neck, the brightest part of the picture, and his hair is a little wet. We can see the finest blond hairs on his neck. His shoulder blades are clearly defined, and his skin is so young and smooth. If we were not able to see the back of his head, we might not able to tell the gender, although his arms and shoulders are skinny in a boyish way.
Of course the relation between parents and their young children is intimate and sensual. Children need to be held, comforted, nurtured, and admired. Maxwell's picture emphasizes the beauty of his son, even to the extent of acknowledging his son's nascent sexuality. In our culture we have a very hard time knowing how to talk about this relation between parents and children because of our awareness of the prevalence of child abuse, and maybe also because we don't know how to draw a line between objectifying our children and talking about the eroticism in childhood. Maxwell is clearly in a dangerous area, also explored by Sally Mann and Jock Sturges. Maxwell ventures in an even more dangerous direction than others though, because of the context of his photos of children. They are placed explicitly erotic picutres of adult women. For example, Lemons in Hand, (115), a boy's hand holding two lemons, with his out-of-focus naked chest in the background, is just after Penny in White (113), in which Penny, head back, eyes closed, leans against a wall squeezing her nipple and her other hand on her genitals.
Some of Maxwell's pictures of children focus on an almost abstract visual pleasure. Detail of Neck, (83), is just a boy's chin pressed down against his chest. One's eye is drawn to his nipple and the folds of flesh of his neck. Detail, (33), is just a boy lying naked on a bed. Again, we can't see his eyes. Instead, we see his torso, and one is startled to see the genitals close to the center of the picture. But this image is far less sensual than Couces Epaules, San Diego -- the pleasure in the viewing of Detail is more in the shapes, the unexpectedness, and the contrast in texture of the smoothness of the skin and the rumpled sheets.
Similarly, in Justin (119), his son stands naked, looking a little awkward, against an old door, and the contrast is between skin, the texture of the door and the brick well to the side. Far more erotically-charged is Justin in Khaki's (117) where his son sits in a wooden chair in front of an overgrown hedge. Justin is naked to the waist, very relaxed and a little moody, looking to his right, his left leg on the ground, his right leg splayed over the arm of the chair. If his son was ten years older, it could be a pin-up shot. But Justin is probably about nine years old here.
There's nothing inappropriate or pornographic about Maxwell's images of children. But they raise profound issues, and I admire him for that.
Photographic images from Robert Maxwell: Photographs © Copyright 2000 Arena Editions.
Text © 2000 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.