Longform

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 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.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.