Mike Sakasegawa had a nice twitter thread last week where he worked through his feelings on a selection of Michael Northrup photographs that featured in the New Yorker. I clicked through, read the article, and started to have similarly-conflicted feelings as Mike did.
The photographs are nice and hit a very familiar intimate feeling that any photographer who takes photos of their spouse or family will be familiar with. At the same time, there was something about these that just felt off.
I read the entire article looking for any acknowledgement that his ex-wife had okayed publishing the photos. With photographers like Emmet Gowin and Harry Callahan, part of the appeal of their photographs of their spouses is the sense that we can see how their relationship is growing and aging and that the photos reflect the strength of the relationship. In Northrup’s case, the concept that this relationship was no longer working was used as the framing for what makes the photos so special in how they captures a happy moment in the past.
That framing didn’t quite work for me. I referred to it as being close to revenge porn although I also admit that that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Northrup’s photos don’t feel like they’re intended to explicitly humiliate, embarrass, or harass his ex-wife.* However they do feel like a betrayal in how the trusting relationship that they show is clearly no longer in existence. And since that trust is likely gone, I found myself wondering about the messiness of divorce and what it must be like to have your ex assert ownership over images of your nude body.
*I’m also leery of giving someone a pass just because he’s able to take extremely good photos—yes we’ve had this discussion about Winogrand and his creepshots before.
A few years ago a similar issue came up in photoland where a photographer corresponded with Blake Andrews about whether or not to publish nude photos of his ex-wife. I went digging for Blake’s post and was shocked to discover that it was actually about Northrup. And that five years ago his wife had stated that she didn’t want the photos to be published.
There was a decent amount of conversation in photoland about what Northrup should do. My favorite response was from Jin Zhu (on her now-defunct blog) which very clearly stated that since Northrup had asked for consent and it had been withheld, going any further with the product was ethically in the wrong.
Five years later, the project is back. According to Alexandra Schwartz (the New Yorker author), this is a different edit/selection (leading me to believe that Northrup has claimed that his ex-wife didn’t like the previous edit rather than having problems with the publication itself). But it also seems like, unlike last time, Northrup didn’t ask for her consent before publishing.
As a result, I remain uneasy with the photos in that as far as I can tell, the subject still doesn’t want me to see them. I’d love to learn otherwise though and I’m looking forward to hearing what his ex-wife says this time around.