Jacqueline Livingston: Male Nudity Against the System
On the 21st of June 2013, American photographer Jacqueline Louise Livingston (nèe Barrett) died in Ithaca, New York. Born in August 1943, Jacqueline Louise Barrrett, grew up in Chandler, Arizona, where her father worked on the Air Force base as chief of the Fire Dept. He died when she was 12 years old, leaving her mother to raise her and her sister. In the spring of 1962, she picked up a camera for the first time in her freshman art class at Arizona State University. She and her husband John Livingston helped organize the Students for a Democratic Society in Tempe, Arizona. She marched in the civil rights movement, protested the war in Vietnam, formed feminist consciousness raising groups in San Francisco, and worked for social and political change even when her first marriage ended and her second began after the birth of her son. Turning to photography to cope with her two failed marriages and the stress of being a single mother on welfare, Livingston directed a feminist gaze upon the male nude. Her art explored family, gender roles and a nudist lifestyle. By 1976, Livingston’s artistic profile brought her to Cornell University where she taught photography. Her subversive art exhibitions featuring male genitalia generated controversy on campus and in the Ithaca community.
In 1978, Jacqueline Livingston produced a series of nude photographs, her main subjects being her then husband, father in law, and six year old son. Due to the avalanche of controversy that followed, Livingston was fired from Cornell University – according to some of her colleagues ,“she could not expect to photograph male penises and stay at Cornell” (Carol Jacobsen, Redefining Censorship: A Feminist View, Art Journal, Vol. 50, No. 4, Winter, 1991). “Of all her images, though, it was this series of her then six year old son masturbating which caused her the most trouble. Like many photographers, Livingston was in the habit of photographing her child since birth. Thus, by the time he reached six, he was completely comfortable with the camera. Moreover, Livingston and his father tried to provide a climate for their son in which nudity was nothing to be ashamed of. The images are a grid of nine photographs of her young son sitting cross-legged. His head has been cropped and the focal point is his torso. As Livingston was taking these, her son began to spontaneously touch himself, a sight, possibly not that unfamiliar to a parent. Rather than shaming her son into stopping or shaming herself into not taking pictures, Livingston continued to photograph.” (Connie Samaras, Feminism, Photography, Censorship, and Sexually Transgressive Imagery: The Work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jacqueline Livingston, Sally Mann, and Catherine Opie, 1993, 38 New York Law School, Law Review 75).
It has been suggested that Livingston became one of the first victims of the newly created child pornography legislation introduced in the States in the late 1970s. The whole incident affected her private as well as professional life. Apart from losing her job at the University, she was stigmatized by Kodak who reacted by confiscating some of her films, labelling them simply ‘pornography’. Several art magazines refused to run ads for Livingston’s posters of male nudes. She was also accused of child abuse and became the subject of a thorough investigation by the FBI; in spite of this, it could be argued that she was indeed only trying to capture the uncensored beauty of male body at different ages. However, Livingston did not give up without a fight. She sued the University for firing her, alleging sex-biased employment discrimination. After five years of litigation the case resulted in a settlement, however Livingston was never again allowed to teach at Cornell. She decided to pursue a solo career by opening a One-Artist’s Gallery in New York, but due to continuing surveillance by the FBI she was forced to change professions. In My Story, written in 1994, Jacqueline Livingston declared: “Wilhelm Reich’s book The Mass Psychology of Fascism influenced my thinking about child rearing. According to Reich, being raised in sexual freedom (i.e. masturbation is healthy, premarital sex and sex education are a person’s human right) is the first step in structuring personalities who will not follow authority.”
Livingston’s example shows clearly that whilst some things may be accepted in theory, once presented openly in public they all of a sudden turn into shameful subjects bound for severe stigmatisation and consequently, punishment. According to Carol Jacobsen “In the era of the 1980s, the same people who fought sex education in the schools have also have fought pornography. Some of the most savage attacks have been against women artists whose work contains images of nude children or references to their sexual activity. Pious objections on the grounds of the need to protect children are too often reactionary manifestations of a sex-negative society in which nude representations of children are automatically seen as dirty, and children’s sexuality is thereby placed in a context of silence, ignorance, and shame.” (Jacobsen)