Artist Betsy Schneider takes pictures of her children naked and shows them to the world | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Artist Betsy Schneider takes pictures of her children naked and shows them to the world

These days, a mom can scrapbook the remnants of her baby's umbilical cord or blog about her teenager's period, and no one will bat an eye. But there's still one place where maternal (or paternal) documentation is sometimes considered an over-share: nude photos of the kids. Particularly when they're hanging...
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These days, a mom can scrapbook the remnants of her baby's umbilical cord or blog about her teenager's period, and no one will bat an eye. But there's still one place where maternal (or paternal) documentation is sometimes considered an over-share: nude photos of the kids.

Particularly when they're hanging on the walls of a gallery.

From the day her daughter Madeleine was born, Betsy Schneider has performed a ritual that would inspire jealousy in any mom who lost the baby book when her own kid was 3 months old. Schneider's taken what she calls a "Photo of the Day." Two, actually: a headshot and a full-body image.

When Madeleine was an infant, Schneider would get the baby up in the morning, take off her diaper, and snap the photos. She meant to do it only for a year, but the project continued as Madeleine got older (she's now 10), and it came to include her younger brother Viktor, now 6.

The images are almost clinical, certainly documentary-style, marking time on the face and body. Schneider insists the head shots are more personal, but it's the full-frontals, of course, that have gotten so much attention — particularly in 2004, when Schneider showed three huge posters filled with tiny shots of Madeleine at birth, 2, and 5 at a London gallery.

The images came down the day they went up, only to be strewn — along with Schneider's reputation — across the front pages of that city's nasty tabloids, amidst accusations of child pornography.

The depiction of nude children in art is obviously nothing new. The Greeks did it. So did Leonardo da Vinci. But apparently, frescoes on ceilings don't worry cops as much as photographs on the Internet, and today, magazines like Popular Photography devote entire articles to the task of warning shutterbugs not to take film containing that proverbial bearskin rug shot to the local Walgreens to be developed.

Schneider is no mere shutterbug. She graduated from two of the best art schools in the country and apprenticed with Sally Mann, arguably the most famous modern photographer to take pictures of her own naked kids.

The questions raised in the 1992 New York Times Magazine article that first introduced her to Mann's work could as easily be posed today about Schneider's own images:

Mann's work has raised worrying personal concerns. The shield of motherhood can quickly become a sword when turned against her. If it is her solemn responsibility, as she says, "to protect my children from all harm," has she knowingly put them at risk by releasing these pictures into a world where pedophilia exists? Can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits, even if — especially if — the artist is their parent?

Schneider's taught photography at Arizona State University since 2002, but while the university supported her work, officials kept quiet (and kept her quiet) about the controversy abroad. Schneider's never shown her "Photo of the Day" work in town.

This spring she got tenure, and she got bolder. She's got two local shows planned this year. The first, opening August 15 at The Kitchenette, a photography collective on Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix, features 120 images — one a month of Madeleine, from birth to age 10. (Two of Schneider's former students, Desiree Edkins and Jose Sosa, will also be showing their photographs.)

The show's title is "That Enthralling Gallop," from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Sweet is the swamp with its secrets
Until we meet a snake;
'Tis then we sigh for houses,
And our departure take

At that enthralling gallop
That only childhood knows.
A snake is summer's treason,
And guile is where it goes.

One year, Schneider recalls, her mother got a roll of film developed, and it came back with snapshots from two Christmases. That's how seldom she took photographs.

Neither of Betsy's two younger sisters took pictures, either; they drew. But Betsy couldn't sit still long enough. The photo gene came from her dad and his father. That side of the family "obsessively" photographed family events, she says.

Their parents are both psychologists and raised the girls in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Betsy got her first camera at 8, but it wasn't 'til she was picked for yearbook in junior high that the photo bug bit.

"I was kind of a runty, weird, uncomfortable, boyish sixth-grader," she says. "I remember feeling like it was something I did a little bit better."

But she was sloppy in the darkroom and screwed up a couple of rolls of film and lost her confidence. She ran track and cross-country in high school and majored in English literature at the University of Michigan.

She thought about becoming a writer or a lawyer, explaining, "I wanted to argue." But a good photography class reminded her of her old love, and Schneider went back for another undergraduate degree, this time at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was uncomfortable there — it was her first time in a big city; she didn't feel like she fit in or wore the right clothes. But she'd chosen her career.

"Deep down, I knew this was it."

It was the late 1980s, and as Schneider recalls, her classmates — particularly the female ones — were big into the way women were represented in art. The mantra was, "We're reclaiming the female body from the male gaze," but Schneider thought that was BS, particularly because, for her fellow students, it resulted in nothing more than a lot of beautiful, self-conscious self-portraits.

She decided to photograph kids instead.

She was nannying for the four children of her high school track coach, including young twin girls, who became her focus. She wondered, "Can you objectify someone if the picture's made out of love?"

The answer: "Yeah, of course, but it's more complicated."

The twins got their hair cut super-short, and Schneider took a photo of them, at 9, with their shirts off. "Even that felt risky to me," she remembers.

School over, again, she retreated, moving to Prague for a year. She drank beer, wrote in her journal, took maybe 10 rolls of film. Back in Chicago, she tried working as a photo assistant, but hated the technical end.

Then someone mentioned Sally Mann. Mann's career had exploded — she'd been a photographer for quite a while, but it was the ethereal black-and-white images she took of her children that caught the art world's eye. Schneider saw a profile of Mann in the New York Times Magazine.

"I looked at it and said, that's who I want to work for."

She wrote a letter and included some images she'd been working on. Mann wrote her back, on the backside of a print. Not long after, Schneider moved to Lexington, Virginia, to live with Mann and her family.

The Manns were fascinating. They ate ketchup on everything and didn't take a lot of showers. But they threw fancy parties and otherwise blurred the lines between the upper and lower classes, Schneider recalls. She ran with Mann in the morning and read to her kids at night. She pulled weeds, but so did her boss, who also sought her advice about which of her images worked.

"I was a little Sally. There were amazing, amazing parts of it," Schneider says, looking almost 20 years later as though she still can't believe the opportunity came her way. "To this day, she's in my head."

The two remain in touch, though sporadically. A trip to the Grand Canyon earlier this summer fell through. Mann did not respond to an e-mailed request for an interview for this story.

"I adore her. She's complicated. She knows she's complicated," Schneider says. "She can be a pain in the ass."

At the end of a year and a half with Mann, Schneider admits, "I was losing myself."

She left Virginia for Northern California — specifically, Mills College. Ironically, since she'd eschewed the notion in Chicago, Schneider had been taking self-portraits while working for Mann. (After all, as she explains, it wasn't like she could build a body of work by shooting Mann's children; and there wasn't much else in the small town.)

The idea was to be subversive — to take unflattering close-ups of odd angles. She tried to make herself look ugly, to step away, to see the body as an object.

Schneider pulls at her lip. You know, she says, "like when your mouth is numb with Novocain. How weird it is that you're a thing."

In the end, she ditched the self-portraits for intensely close-up shots of the inside of the mouth. The results are freaky landscapes — you'd never know you were looking at a tongue or the inside of a cheek. Her model was a music major named Frank Ekeberg, who lived in her dorm.

The two fell in love. They graduated, and moved to London so Ekeberg could work on his Ph.D. in electronic composition. Schneider was pregnant.

She was making her best work, ever, and she was going to be a mother.

"I thought I was the king of the world," she says.

Admittedly, London was a letdown. Years later she'd get teaching gigs, but at the time she arrived, Schneider was aimless, and her belly was growing. She missed Mills. An acquaintance warned her to make friends before the baby came, so she found some lectures to attend. It was good advice. She met another expectant mother who, years later, curated the show that caused so much controversy.

First, though, Schneider had Madeleine and launched the "Photo of the Day" project.

Ekeberg, whom Schneider describes as "my pretty much perfect husband," was supportive from the start.

"I wasn't sure if we would have the discipline to keep it going for very long, but once it became part of the daily routine, there was never a right moment to stop," he says now. "The little bit of doubt I had in the beginning was purely practical, I didn't have any problems with the artistic idea behind it. I saw it as a long-term work, where it would possibly take years before we would know whether it was interesting enough to present in any way at all as an art work. In the beginning, it was just a cool thing to have a picture from every day of my child's life."

Schneider and family lived in London for four years, then moved to Norway, where Ekeberg was born and raised. She loved the small town where they lived — particularly Madeleine's pre-school, an idyllic setting with wood-paneled walls and the aroma of waffles. The kids skied in winter and ran around naked in the summer.

But Schneider had her sights set on a university job. So she sent out résumés and heard back from Arizona State University. After looking over the faculty's work, Schneider wondered if her résumé had become stuck to the back of someone else's; what she did was so different.

That's what the ASU art faculty liked about her. Mark Klett, Regents professor of photography at the Herberger College of Art at ASU, and a noted fine art photographer in his own right, remembers Schneider's interview. He recalls that he and others admired her work, but equally important, they liked her as a person.

Viktor was a newborn; Schneider recalls getting off the plane in August, wearing a sweater — and a baby.

"She brought the kid with her to the interview, which I thought was really gutsy," Klett says. (Actually, Schneider says, she even breastfed at the interview.)

"She is very upfront, and she kind of wears her opinions and her heart on her shirtsleeve," Klett continues. "She's not hiding anything, and she doesn't play politics or anything, which is really great in a university setting."

He concludes: "She's sort of always questioning herself, which sounds like she's second-guessing herself . . . That's wrong."

Schneider got the job, and moved her family to Arizona.

When she got here, all Schneider knew about the state was that it's hot, and it's the place that didn't want a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The ASU photography department was — and is — small (five members then, six now), and it was hard to build a community.

Here, she says, "things are more complicated; people are more complicated."

She has made friends. "I tend to bond with people who are struggling with being here," she says.

The worst part of that is that those are often the people who leave town.

Having kids helped. Schneider coaches both kids' soccer teams. She did the photos for their school yearbook. Now, she admits, she's addicted to the sun.

Her studio is a small room tucked behind the Ekeberg/Schneider home — a modest slump-block on a quiet Tempe street. Inside, it feels a little foreign, starker and brighter than your typical American home. The floors are shiny concrete, the walls plain white. There are Moosewood cookbooks in the kitchen and photographs by Schneider and her students everywhere.

In the studio, a wall A/C unit hums loudly, to keep up with the early June heat. It pretty much looks like how you'd expect a photographer's studio to look: Rubbermaids waiting to be filled with negatives, framed prints spilling onto the floor, fancy computers used to process work. (Though Schneider still prefers film for most projects.)

On the walls, she's tacked single images of the kids — some naked, some clothed. Some are straightforward; others tell a story, whether Schneider means to or not. Unlike Sally Mann, she tends to let images happen, rather than giving the kids props and setting scenes.

In the most striking image, a 4-year-old Viktor has appeared in a doorway at home, wearing nothing but a large policeman's hat cocked jauntily to the side. He's carrying a "gun" made of Lego blocks and staring at the camera. To the side, you see Schneider's reflection as she crouches to take the picture.

Huge rolls with the multiple daily photo images lined up are tucked in a corner.

Madeleine is off somewhere else today, but Viktor's chosen to stay home, and the 6-year-old is aimless — ping-ponging between Mom and Dad, both of whom are trying to get some work done. (Soon, Schneider will take off with the kids for the better part of the summer, on an annual road trip that takes them all across the country.)

Viktor comes to the studio door several times — with a bug sucker, then walkie-talkies. Schneider is gently amused.

Where Madeleine has always been compliant about the daily photo, Viktor's ambivalent at best. At 4, he quit. It was a relief to Schneider, who had been running interference daily — the kids would fight over who would pose first. But today, Viktor's all about photography. He wants to be in the studio. Schneider kindly shoos him away, and keeps talking. She's trying to explain how she came to make her work about her kids. Even back in grad school, she says, she thought about how to make art out of the experience of motherhood. "I know that sounds crass," she says, laughing.

But it's really not, if you look at the body of Schneider's work. Even back in grad school, she was concerned with how time affected living things. She did a gorgeous series of photographs of rotting fruit. She's long been influenced not only by Sally Mann but documentarians like Nicholas Nixon, who for 30 years took an annual photograph of his wife and her three sisters.

"You look at that and think, life is short and it happens to everyone," she says.

She thought about photographing a new baby every hour for the first year.

At this point, Viktor bursts in again, this time with a blue plastic camera.

"Madeleine got that when you were born," Schneider tells him.

"Is it real?" I ask.

"I don't know if it's still real," Schneider says, examining the toy, which at one time, at least, did function.

"It's real!" Viktor announces.

"I don't know if it's working," his mother tells him. Finally, she digs up a roll of film, loads the camera, and sends Viktor off to take pictures.

The kid-photograph project morphed into "Photo of the Day," she continues, and it's continued to morph. When she was 4 or 5, Madeleine started appearing clothed some mornings. Soon, it was every day.

She would probably never come right out and admit it, but that had to be a relief for Schneider. After all, there was London.

The thing about London that makes Schneider the maddest is when people tell her she was naive to think that she could show naked pictures of her kids without incident.

She disagrees. When she was still living in London, just a few years earlier, she went through the whole kiddy-porn thing with the police, who saw her work and cleared her at the time. Twice.

First, one of her students in London was hauled in for questioning, after it was discovered she was photographing children she babysat for. (Unlike Schneider years before her, apparently the student did not ask the family for permission.) The student told police that her photography teacher took naked photos of her own kids every day. The police talked to Schneider. They looked at her work and agreed it was fine.

The second incident came in 2001, when Madeleine was about 4. Betsy took her along to the photo store to pick up some film. They were waiting for her. Instead of handing her prints to Schneider, the guy behind the counter gave them to a cop, who arrested her.

Ekeberg came to the station to pick up Madeleine. The entire episode was over in four hours; Schneider had her photos back that day.

So three years later, when her old friend Heather McDonough asked Schneider to be part of a show called Inventory, at the Spitz Gallery, she didn't hesitate. But there were complaints at the opening; Schneider's work went down almost as soon as it had gone up. The mistake, the organizers admit, was calling the media to look for attention.

Schneider was right; the police weren't interested. But the London press was — in spades — and the episode became front-page news 'til another story (train bombings in Madrid) bumped it. By then, the damage had been done, particularly to Schneider's psyche. She says she knows now why famous people fly first-class. On the plane ride home, she could feel the dirty looks. She felt better only after she passed through customs.

(Since London, Schneider has had a show in New York City, which went without incident.)

The night she got home, Schneider brought the kids into bed with her and lay awake thinking, "What if I've done something awful?"

Ekeberg had taken the daily photos while she was gone. The next morning, when she picked up her camera, "I was shaking."

Schneider's continued with the "Photo of the Day," she's continued to photograph her children naked, at times, and she plans to show her work. But as her colleague Mark Klett says, she does ask herself questions. Hard questions.

It's almost impossible to make good work about your kids, Schneider says: "Either it's too saccharine or you're a bad mother."

She feels the mother/child relationship is sensual and complicated. "You're raising someone to take your place; you're also replicating your genes."

She's not sure that being an artist makes her a better parent, but she feels it makes her a better role model.

"It's back to the cliché of living the examined life," she says. "It might make life harder, but it makes it richer."

The studio door opens. It's Viktor again, presumably back with his camera.

"It's very interesting that Viktor's doing this now," she says as the door opens and Viktor enters — camera gone, costume on. "Oh, now he's a pirate!"

Schneider's photographs are basic and honest and, yes, sometimes naked. She disagrees with the fuss. For her, there are so many other images out there that are more troubling.

She's particularly critical of the work of Jill Greenberg, a Los Angeles photographer who made her money with commercial jobs and a name for herself with images of young children crying.

Greenberg's crying photos are stunning — and disturbing. In 2006, Popular Photography asked her how she makes the children cry:

"Mostly we did it by giving them something, a lollipop, and then taking it away. Some would just cry for no reason — my daughter did that; she didn't like standing on the apple box I used for a platform because it was a little wobbly. Some just wouldn't cry at all. For all the kids, I worked really fast. We would book 12 or so for one day, and see who we could make cry. At the end of the day I was not in a good mood. I don't like making little kids cry."

Schneider has equal — or more — disdain for bad pop-culture influences, like slutty girl clothes at Old Navy and the Bratz dolls, which make Barbie look downright prudish.

"Bratz dolls are acceptable, makeup for kids is acceptable, but my naked picture isn't?" she asks.

When the London press made such a big deal out of the fact that she was showing the world naked pictures of Madeleine, Schneider says she really didn't worry at all about pedophiles sneaking into the house late at night.

"My biggest fear, my deepest fear, was that this controversy was going to make Madeleine feel ashamed of her body," she says. "That's part of what the pictures are; they love their bodies. That would have been the dereliction of the parental duty."

And Schneider acknowledges that she does have a duty, on many fronts. She admits that Madeleine is a pleaser, that she wants to make her mother happy. She knows the power she holds as her mother.

Sherrie Medina, who among other things is a curator and artist in Phoenix (and one of those people Schneider complains is always leaving town — Medina's soon off to Chicago), says of Schneider, "She's had to really, really think about her work in ways that a lot of people don't have to. I really admire that."

Ekeberg says he's never had a moment of regret over the project.

"The way it has evolved, with the kids being in control of whether to keep it up and willing to engage in the work, is good," Schneider's husband says. "They have to be part of any decision process with regard to the work, anyway. More than 10 years of daily photos of someone is quite unique, and it's a great thing to have; even if the kids deny any public presentation of it, the pictures are still there for us."

It's a hot Tuesday morning in June, and Schneider's taking the "Photo of the Day." Ekeberg gets out the camera to photograph a New Times photographer photographing Schneider photographing Madeleine.

As Schneider had described it, it's over before it feels like it should have started. Looking bored, Madeleine crashes on the couch with a book about flags. Viktor runs around the house with his blue plastic camera. Viktor Schneider didn't even try to develop the film; he kept opening the back and exposing it, she says.

The four gather for what Schneider thinks must be the first family portrait, ever.

Afterward, Madeleine pauses outside her bedroom door for some questions. (She wasn't so willing; even Ekeberg agreed only if he were to be interviewed via e-mail.)

Why does your mom take your picture?

"I don't know." Pause. "She wants to see the difference. You can see it yearly, how I dress, sometimes, but it's mostly how I grow up, sort of. The difference."

Do you like it?

"I don't know." Pause. "It's cool looking at them, but it's routine."

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