Last week The State News published a piece on a university photography professor, Danny Guthrie, who takes pornographic pictures of and with his former and current students (SN 10/3). The article explains that the professor photographs himself and young women “in various poses exploring the boundaries of human sexuality.” These poses are supposedly “based on famous works of art throughout history and represent how individuals interact.”
The article continues that although some students are so intrigued by the “notorious” rumors circulating in various MSU art departments about the photos and their photographer that they enroll in his courses, other would-be students are so intimidated and uncomfortable that they avoid the department entirely.
The university has asked the professor in question to stop photographing himself with nude students, but, as the article explains, he has refused.
Recurring themes of age, power and sex are abound in this professor’s photography and closely align with both historical and contemporary themes found in pornography. Feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin writes that within porn, “The woman is acted on; the man acts and through action expresses sexual power, the power of masculinity.”
In the six photographs linked in the online version of the article, all but one is of the professor and different female students who appear dead. The women’s bodies, pacified and disempowered through death, are juxtaposed with the professor’s as he stands, sits or in some way inserts himself over the bodies of the women. He — virile, powerful and masculine — and they — disempowered, silenced and feminine.
In this way, these photographs are not new but depict patriarchal sexual relations dating back millennia. The disempowerment of his female counterparts is the empowerment of himself, the triumph of masculinity over the feminine.
And in the lone photograph with a woman standing and with her eyes open, her feet still are not firmly planted. She is unstable as the professor holds her, as if to steady her — something she cannot do herself.
And as the professor purports to be examining various gendered relations in his pictures, one begins to better understand why pornographic picture taking becomes the perfect medium for it. In his pictures, as in pornography, women are not themselves. They become a mirror of the pornographer, a metaphor or illusion, a rhetorical device devoid of actual depth or meaning. Individuality is destroyed as woman are objectified and crafted into a male-manufactured ideal of femininity — in this case, dead or in other ways disempowered.
Feminist author and activist Susan Griffin also writes that pornography functions as a cultural means to suppress, degrade and devalue the feminine while simultaneously reaffirming patriarchal conceptualizations of male superiority.
Griffin would argue the classical pieces of art or classical art themes this professor seeks to recapture in his photographs are in and of themselves pornographic, insofar as patriarchal culture often neutralizes and naturalizes sexism and sexist depictions of women. What culturally sanctioned great men of art find most erotically appealing is often the same art that reaffirms their own status, power and virility.
Although this professor hides behind his art or conceptions of academic freedom and freedom of expression, these claims are not new either. Andrea Dworkin explains that “the new pornography is left-wing” and that oftentimes “on the left, the sexually liberated woman is the woman of pornography.” Although this professor’s photographs might seem to be bursting through the bounds of acceptable student/professor relationships (a relationship that itself abounds in porn), one must see the unequal power in such relationships as particularly troublesome.
For art students who want a good grade or who want to be accepted within the community as a fellow artist — whether or not they have reservations about posing naked with their professor — this may look like a means to get ahead in class or the industry. They might hope that a photograph of themselves might be admired or discovered, leading to further opportunities in the field (although The State News article itself shows that at least some of the pictures adorn the walls of the professor’s bedroom, not gallery walls).
This column is not meant to be particularly cruel or nasty against any one professor, but to be a plea, a plea for this professor to stop. Academic or personal freedoms stop when those freedoms encroach upon the rights of others.
The supposed right for one in power (a senior male professor) to photograph someone naked with little power (his female students) is abusive and unacceptable.
Mitch Goldsmith is a State News guest columnist and social relations and policy, women’s and gender studies senior. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.