Sept. 27, 2007 — -- Legendary singer-songwriter Sir Elton John is defending the work of award-winning photographer Nan Goldin after one of her photos, which he now owns, was seized by British authorities. Officials say they received a complaint that the image was pornographic.
The passions of John could stir up legal troubles in the United Kingdom, according to a First Amendment expert on this side of the pond.
Goldin's "Klara and Edda Belly-Dancing" depicts two young girls, one of whom is lying down with her legs spread open.
John lent 150 of the Goldin photos he owns to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, for an exhibition.
The New York artist's work is well-known for its gritty and urban themes and is often graphic, provocative and sexually explicit. Her subjects frequently include family, friends and children.
"The photograph exists as part of the installation as a whole and has been widely published and exhibited throughout the world," writes John on his Web site.
"It has been offered for sale at Sotheby's New York … and exhibited in Houston, London, Madrid, New York, Portugal, Warsaw and Zurich without any objections that we are aware of," the singer said in defense of the photograph.
But those facts have not deterred authorities who removed the photo after reportedly receiving a complaint from a gallery employee.
Police are not only interested in the creator of the image, but also the owner of the photograph.
"The circumstances around who may have been involved in the production of the image and who may have owned it or owns it forms part of the investigation," said a spokesman for the Northumbria police.
Legal observers say the United Kingdom does not have a First Amendment law, per se, that can protect or shield some forms of artistic expression. But even in the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled that images of real children who have been sexually exploited are not shielded by free speech claims.
"It is not only about prosecuting the people who created it and may have abused a child in the process," said Marjorie Heins, director of the Free Expression Policy Project. "It is about prosecuting — with very Draconian criminal penalties at this point in the U.S. — a person who simply possesses it and had nothing to do with abusing a child, but buys it or receives it on his computer."
Heins is also a former attorney for the ACLU in New York.
John has been collecting photography since the early 1990s and is considered to own the largest private collection of 20th century photography.
More than 2,500 images include the works of acclaimed artists Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Man Ray and the controversial photographer of homoerotic images Robert Mapplethorpe.
Goldin is a friend of John's and the British singer has patronized her work for many years.
"Elton was first attracted to the directness, truth and poignancy of Nan Goldin's photography. And her work forms a central part of Elton John's collection," Jane Jackson, the curator of The Sir Elton John Photography Collection, told amateurphotographer.com.
Legal observers in the United States say that while the courts have tried to limit protection of artistic photographs or moving pictures featuring nude children or sexually explicit images of young people, prosecutions have been infrequent.
"Generally, the provocative poses have to be extreme to get a prosecutor's attention," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
"They … do not prosecute child pornography cases unless those children are being made into victims. They are being sexually assaulted," said Levenson, who was once a federal prosecutor.
Still, just the hint of controversy can have a chilling effect on museums and galleries.
A national debate was triggered in 1990, when the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati exhibited the sexually provocative and explicit photos of Mapplethorpe.
The museum was prosecuted on obscenity charges. Though the center and its director were acquitted, the exhibition sparked a national debate about the public funding of what some considered offensive art.
That same year, authorities in San Francisco raided the studio of Jock Sturges, an accomplished photographer whose work has hung on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Sturges' work includes studies of nude boys and girls. A grand jury declined to return an indictment, but in 1998, Sturges was again at the center of a censorship storm when attempts were made to prosecute bookstores in Tennessee and Alabama that were carrying his photography books. All charges were eventually dropped in both cases.
Celebrated photographer Sally Mann featured nudes of her children in a critically acclaimed collection of stills called "Immediate Family."
But in 1992, vocal critics condemned Mann's work as pornography during an exhibition at a New York gallery.
Museum and gallery directors admit these can be challenging times when deciding how to walk the line between being compelling and educational and offending community sensibilities.
"You have segments of society with very distinct and valid concerns about art and what's presented in art that might be tremendously offensive to other sections of society," said Elizabeth Merritt of the American Association of Museums.
"You have to be aware of both of those interests in deciding what you are going to present."
Merritt also says these debates are not always about sex or pornography. The "Body Worlds" exhibit drew criticism and created controversy because the riveting display of preserved real human bodies included fetuses.
"Museums are in the challenging position of being places that both raise interesting intellectual and aesthetic questions that try to make people think, but at the same time, safe places that people want to come to be involved in this ongoing discussion. It's a real balancing act," said Merritt.
Neither the gallery in Northern England nor the police are providing any further details of the investigation. It remains to be seen whether Goldin or John will face prosecution or penalty.
History may be on the artist's side. In 2001, police demanded a photograph of Goldin's on exhibit at Saatchi Gallery in London be taken down. The gallery refused and the authorities did not pursue the matter, reportedly because they felt a successful prosecution was not likely.
And there may be a silver lining for Goldin if the past controversies of other provocative still photographers are any indication.
The value of Sturges' nude photographs reportedly skyrocketed after his brushes with pornography law, making him millions.