Child porn or edgy art?

The New York Times publishes a blurry view of a 17-year-old model's breast.

Published December 17, 2007 9:21PM (EST)

The New York Times' fashion magazine recently featured photos of a minor in various states of undress. In one photo, 17-year-old model Ali Michael is shown wearing a couture corset paired with ... a hat. She is naked from the waist down and holds the slightest piece of clothing in front of her bare "down there." In another photo, she's topless and clutching her chest. But it was a photo of her looking spritelike in a John Galliano coat and nothing else that moved some to call the photo child pornography. Michael isn't so much wearing the coat as she is in the process of taking it off. A blurry side view of the 17-year-old's breast is also visible.

The photo spread stirred enough outrage among readers that Clark Hoyt, the Times' public editor, penned an Op-Ed response. Hoyt says the photos aren't pornographic, but that the Times "made a mistake in publishing them." He concluded: "The problem with being edgy is that, sometimes, you fall over the edge." Craig Whitney, the newspaper's assistant managing editor, said that if he'd seen the photos before publication he would have raised some noise "because I thought they were tawdry."

Unsurprisingly, the editors who originally approved the photos stand by the decision. Jim Schachter, deputy editor of the New York Times Magazine, attributes the appropriateness of the photos to our current culture: "We're well past the point in our culture when there is a bright line that separates sexually charged images of men and women just short of 18 from art." Schachter also noted that T Magazine is part of "the world of fashion magazines and fashion, where youth and unattainable beauty and charged sexuality are the currency of the day." Ultimately, he said, the spread "didn't give me pause for one second." Likewise, executive editor Bill Keller said that for him, the photos simply "didn't register." He said, "I think that they are within bounds for an edgy fashion magazine published by the New York Times."

The debate over where, or whether, to draw a line between pornography and art will never end, of course. Regardless of whether you respond to the photographs as child porn or art, they make an ugly statement about the current culture of high fashion, especially in the initial response they elicited from the Times' top editors: None. It's entirely unsurprising that they didn't register these sexualized photos of a seminaked (not to mention shockingly thin) 17-year-old, who easily passes as 12, as even potentially out of bounds -- this has been the fashion industry's calling card for some time. T Magazine is about as mainstream as couture gets, and its editors are simply trying to play catch-up with the industry's boundary pushers. The upside here is that, judging by the reader response, the Times misjudged its audience; maybe the relative mainstream doesn't want in on the high-fashion echo chamber.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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