When Emma Tamburlini was eleven, “her father ordered her to strip naked so that he could make a film about her growing breasts,” an article in The Australian revealed. Tamburlini’s father was artist Larry Rivers. That footage and the film and video that followed are at the center of a disturbing debate that touches on the hot button issues of privacy rights, artists’ rights, and child pornography.
According to The New York Times, Rivers filmed and videotaped his two adolescent daughters naked every six months over a period of five years. He filmed their genitals and emerging breasts, commented on and asked them questions about their bodies. The result was Rivers’s film “Growing” and what should be done with it and the raw footage is the question at hand.
Larry Rivers died in 2002 and New York University is buying his archive, the “Growing” project is a part of it. When Tamburlini, Rivers’s youngest daughter, made it public that she objected and wanted the “Growing” materials turned over to her and her sister Gwynne Rivers, NYU finally said it did not want those materials as part of the archive. They are still held by the Larry Rivers Foundation and the Foundation has yet to turn them over to Tamburlini and her sister.
The Australian article states that the girls were unwilling participants in the project. Tamburlini thinks the film should be destroyed.
She’s right, and respecting her wishes doesn’t mean going down the road of burning books and Balthus paintings. While still images of children by photographers like Larry Clark, Bill Henson, and Sally Mann have raised plenty of difficult questions, this situation doesn’t even seem like it should be open to debate. By most accounts, Rivers’s primary motive was to be shocking (he called his children’s objections “middle class”) but even if he had the best of intentions and even if it is somehow the best thing he ever made, the children didn’t, couldn’t and still don’t approve of the film. People are more important than art. Being an artist isn’t a license to be a creep.
As a mother, this is the kind of thing that makes mothers totally freak out and form committees to ban stuff. It’s also perfect fodder for right-wing art haters and nobody in the art world wants to ally themselves with censorious factions. But the horror of sharing the same opinion as a James Dobson shouldn’t be so great that we allow children to be exploited by a man described by his own daughter as “a fundamentally selfish person.” Even with an approach that is wholly clinical rather than creepy, Rivers’s project about his daughters’ sexual development is a grossly insensitive act.
One wonders if Rivers’s daughters have any legal recourse. Brooke Shields’s 1981 case against Gary Gross, the photographer who (with her mother’s consent) shot highly suggestive photos of her as a preteen for a Playboy publication called Sugar ‘n’ Spice, doesn’t bode well. The photographer kept the rights to his images because Brooke was a minor and her mother’s signature was considered binding. That’s pretty sad. So basically, if you have a shitty parent who makes shitty choices for you, you’re pretty much stuck living with those choices? I would hope that the Larry Rivers Foundation does the compassionate thing and turns the material over to Rivers’s daughters. Does serving Rivers’s “creative legacy” mean perpetuating his exploitation of his daughters?