Close Neighbors: Starr Ockenga

Sometimes individuals would put together lists of artists who did work with child nudes. This is a common practice as this kind of information is regarded with suspicion and is not generally available through conventional media channels. Usually, I would already be familiar with the names, or there was just some incidental work and one would not say that the artist did any substantial work with nude children. When Starr Ockenga’s name came up, I made my usual effort to research her, but all I found were works based on taxidermic specimens and flowers—especially the Amaryllis—much of which can be seen on her official website. I was particularly impressed with her Northern Cardinal.

Starr Ockenga – Northern Cardinal (2005)

There was still the mystery of why she was listed among those who had photographed naked children. Reviewing a list of her published works, there was a possibility with one of her earlier books but nothing definite. Her handling of natural subjects impressed me enough for me to continue. There were two books that were worth checking out: Mirror after Mirror: Reflections on Woman in 1976 and Dressup: Playacts and Fantasies of Childhood in 1978.

The second book sounded like it would be more likely to feature children. If Ockenga could capture the exquisite beauty of a bird or a flower, I wondered what she would do with children engaging in fantasy and play. In Dressup, there were a couple of nudes of her son and one girl submerged in a bathtub, but as I read about the production of this work, the most impressive thing was the collaboration involved. Then I hit a treasure trove; in the back were a series of short transcribed interviews* with the children about their experiences being photographed and their attitudes about growing up. Their words expressed a frank honesty I knew reflected the real thoughts of young people. All through the interviews, the children kept alluding to being shot nude and what it was like and how it shaped their self-image. At that point I realized that Mirror despite its title contained female nudes of all ages. After learning the back story, it is hard to regard these two books as separate. This image is probably one of the most imaginative from Dressup; this is her son Robin as the puppet.

Starr Ockenga – (Untitled) (1978)

There are usually only a handful of reasons considered legitimate for photographing nude children. The most common are candid and intimate family scenes shot by a parent or other close relative. Another is a photographer who is accepted into a naturist community and allowed to shoot there. Ockenga is remarkable in that she defies these usual categories and seems to have found a niche that falls somewhere between where it would seem unusual to have opportunities to photograph naked children. In fact, Ockenga is a mother, but of a single son, yet her work features a number of girls and women . The fact is, they are all neighborhood children with whom the artist nurtured close friendships and collaborations—an impressive feat in my estimation.

Ockenga was raised in Boston, and though her material needs were met, she spent summers in the mountains of New Hampshire with no neighbors her age and a much younger brother and sister. To fill the time, she would dress up and act out various fantasies; she even tried to recall her own birth and act it out using bed sheets. Her father was a minister, and it seems she lived in a strict conservative household where she was not even allowed makeup. She was taught how honorable it was for a woman to devote her life to a man and, as expected, got married, having her first sexual relations with her husband. In short order, she realized that the marriage was a mistake and after five years had the courage to leave with her infant son. She decided to continue her education and earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Photography in 1974.

She became a newspaper photo editor and settled in Ipswitch, Massachusetts, when she had the sudden impulse to buy her first camera. As she had a good rapport with the neighborhood children, they patiently helped her learn the technical skills of operating the camera. Ockenga used her vivid imagination to invent games she could use to practice her skills. Before she left for work, she would give the children a “play word of the day” and they were to conjure up the materials and acts they would perform in front of her camera. Topics included: War, Wedding, The Double, Discotheque, Arabs and Funeral. She was amazed how the children took the initiative and had the costumes and props ready for her to shoot by the time she got home. The results struck her as uncannily adult and she began to contemplate the blur between childhood and adulthood. Her pictures spanned a six-year period, and when it was over she and her neighborhood friends—adult and child—reviewed the results.

Mirror after Mirror was to be a meditation on what it is to be woman and serve as a mirror for women between 30 and 50 years to reflect on who they are and how they got there. Given her rather repressed upbringing, it makes sense that she would infuse the images with sexual meaning. Her intent was also to bring out the duality of female sexuality as both empowering and imprisoning in our society.

One of Ockenga’s innovations was the use of this diamond frame which somewhat emphasizes the dynamic of change and growth. The concentration of light and the girl’s gaze at her lower body is deliberate here.

Starr Ockenga – (Untitled) (1976) (1)

Starr Ockenga – (Untitled) (1976) (2)

Starr Ockenga – (Untitled) (1976) (3)

A number of images feature mother and daughter pairs or the female members of a particular family.

Starr Ockenga – (Untitled) (1976) (4)

In addition to the diamond frame, the image here is further distorted by stretching it vertically to create the suggestion of growth. The shape of the head most clearly reveals this effect.

Starr Ockenga – (Untitled) (1976) (5)

This is perhaps the most artful of the images. The posture of the figure and contemplative melancholy struck my strongly as an archetypal image of vulnerability.

Starr Ockenga – (Untitled) (1976) (6)

*The following are some transcripts from Playacts. Ockenga interviewed the neighborhood boys and girls she shot about their experiences and I selected those most apt and insightful for this post. To protect the anonymity of each witness, she identified each only by his/her gender and age.

“I love to be photographed. I like dressing up and putting make-up on and posing. Sometimes before we get started photographing, I feel a little nervous. Like it is hard in many things in life to feel loose. But then when I get into it, I forget all that and really love to act out scenes. I think I do it pretty good, too. I like feeling things are real and not real at the same time. Or maybe not knowing or forgetting which is which for a little while.” (female, 13)

“I look around sometimes and all I see is masks and painted faces.
Perhaps that’s fantasy and those faces are real. So why not wear my own. It keeps my defenses up and nobody can get at my insides. Wearing my mask, in a funny way, makes me free. If you can understand that.” (female, 17)

“You know what I really think? I think it’s tough to be young and it’s tough to be old.” (male, 13)

“I’ve kissed a boy. I rolled him on the ground. It was at a PTA meeting and he didn’t expect it. Me and my friend chased this boy and jumped him, knocked him on the ground and kissed him. It was really fun to chase after him, but it got kind of embarrassing kissing him.” (female, 9)

“I like boys, it’s true. I guess I look and see if a boy is cute and then I’m attracted to him. But that’s not the most important thing; it’s just the first thing. I want someone easy to talk to. If my sister’s boyfriend were younger, he’d be just right for me. He’s not great looking, but he’s nice. Nice counts a lot.” (female, 13)

“I don’t like being nude. I guess I’m not very confident. My sister says, ‘Oh, you’ve got nothing to hide.’ I know that. And partly that’s why. Probably I’d still mind even if I were developed. I’m embarrassed in front of my sister, but not as much as in front of my brothers. Once Nancy and I took off our tops underwater when we were swimming. It was sort of a dare to each other. We held our tops up out of the water to prove it to each other. l’d have died if anyone had seen us.” (female, 13)

“I love to cook. I love to eat and making something special is what some girls do best. Especially desserts. Usually I cook for myself, even though it’s intended to be for everyone else. It’s not a girl’s job, really. I’m for Woman’s Lib. I’m for doing what I want to do as a person, not necessarily as a girl. I can do a lot of things that just boys are supposed to do. I’m good at softball. I like mowing the lawn. And I hate doing dishes.” (female, 13)

“I have a special shirt I wear when I want to be noticed. I guess boys like it. I tried it out on my brother, and he liked it a lot. It’s good to have a brother to try things out on because it’s hard to know how boys think, and I figure that what he thinks, other boys think, too. Girls who don’t have brothers have an awful lot to figure out themselves. Fathers are not really the same.” (female, 13)

“Having my ears pierced changed my life. I feel pretty. I used to be a real tomgirl and climbed trees, but now I’m different. Like I’m still active, but I’m more girly.” (female, 9)

“ ‘Daddy,’ l say, ‘you have to respond to me.’ I call him on it when he’s not listening to me. I need to be listened to. So now I just say, ‘Come on, Daddy, respond.’ Also, I climb up on his lap, and that gets his attention.” (female, 9)

“I started getting interested in boys in the sixth grade. I liked one boy for a year and a half, and he didn’t even know it. I couldn’t tell him; I would have been too embarrassed. I didn’t know how to act with boys, anyway, so I guess it was just as well, but sometimes it was sad that he never looked at me. I’m shy with boys still, and I don’t know why. If I knew why I could stop. I’ve learned patience. Loosening up is hard work.” (female, 13)

“There are some people I feel naked with. When people are formal or rich, I don’t feel comfortable with them. They just don’t think the same. lt’s not so much how well you know a person; it’s more like how well you know what they’re like. You sort of sense how a person would react, and then that’s something you can trust.” (female, 11)

“I love to put lipstick, eyeshadow, and makeup on. And pull my hair behind my ears. I like to use Noxzema too. Once I went to sleep that way and it felt good.” (female, 11)

“Some say they want to be a child forever. I want to be myself forever.” (male, 14)

“I think I get my way with boys, but I’m not sure how. Just a way I have with them. There are ways to smile. And sometimes, you ask them to do something, and they like that. Just ways that are hard to explain. My friend says when she wants a boyfriend, she wiggles when she walks. I don’t think I really do that, but Nancy says I do it naturally. I guess it’s all natural. I don’t try to do it, but I suppose it happens. Boys do like me.” (female, 13)

“Some sisters are not best friends, and I do feel sorry for them. My sister and I spend a lot of time together, and we work on our relationship. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that a good relationship takes work.” (female, 11)

“I haven’t done much developing like a woman yet. Sometimes I’m glad I’m just a girl and sometimes I wish I were bigger, you know. I’m in junior high and when you look at some of the girls, except for the fact that they’re short, you’d think they were in high school. They’re very developed. Except it seems that most girls like that are not very smart. Most of developed ones are the dumb ones. They show off with their bodies instead of doing schoolwork. Not that I’m a genius, but it’s pretty hard for me to show off with my body. People would just laugh. Those girls pick fights. Mostly, they’re not very nice girls. And they talk about their neat-o boyfriends all the time. Some of the things important to me, they don’t care about.” (female, 13)

“Boys won’t hurt you if they like you. At least physically. But they can hurt you emotionally any time they want. Sometimes I guess they don’t mean to. They don’t have the same sensitivity as girls. They make a lot of blunders in my estimation.” (female, 11)

“I have short hair, and sometimes I’m mistaken for a boy. So I wear necklaces. Only now boys wear necklaces, too. My mother reassures me and tells me you can tell I’m a girl by my legs. I have great legs. When I don’t put long socks on, you can really tell.” (female, 11)

“I think my parents worry even when I walk across the street. I’m the youngest. They worry that something will hurt me. Like my feelings. And sometimes things do. Things to do with misunderstanding. I have a friend I really love. And because of some problems, I don’t see her much. Just that fact makes me feel it’s my fault, even though I know it’s not. Her mother makes her vacuum all the time just so she can’t play with me. That hurts my feelings a lot.” (female, 13)

“Sexy means pretty and showing off your body and the private places. Like your chest and your crotch. Like maybe you have a dress that is out low or slit up the side of the skirt. So you show people that, just easy and slow. Sometimes you put on a hat or high heels. I like to pretend that I’m a stripper. You can even put a blanket around you and slowly let it fall. It’s best in front of a mirror.” (female, 9)

“When I need to be private, I climb up on the porch roof. I get there by a tree that grows on the side of the porch. Nobody knows that I go there, which is the way I want it. It’s quiet there, and I can solve things. I just sit there and think about tomorrow and today. I go there when my feelings are hurt, and I don’t want anybody to know it.” (female, 13)

“Candlelight fascinates me. It gives a room softness and mystery. And I like the light effects on walls. My imagination likes it, too. You can imagine all sorts of mysterious things. It’s nice in a room with the electricity off. Everyone is softer, gentler. People look gentle. I’ve never been with a boy in candlelight, except my brothers, but I think about what it would be like. You know, romantic and soft. Maybe less shy and nervous. And I suppose I’d feel more grown up.” (female, 13)

“You know what surprises me a lot? Some kids have never seen their parents naked. If it’s cold, we wear bathrobes to the bathroom in the morning, but that’s only to do with the cold. Not the bodies. We’re real open with each other, and I feel good about that. I feel good and warm to be able to look at my parents naked. I liked it when you photographed us all together naked, it felt really warm. I guess we’re kind of strange to most people. Like we eat cottage cheese and brown bread instead of stuff like fluffernutter. That’s some indication of our differences. I feel sorry for up-tight families. We’ve got a special openness. All families ought to be like us. We could run a service, I’ll bet. We could really change people’s attitudes. We all work together. It sounds trite, but we do. I know a girl who doesn’t do any work in the house. That must make her feel not important in the house. We have a family meeting on Saturday where we decide things like who works and what we eat. See, I am a part of the decisions. Now the kids think that’s not fun, but it really is. You feel connected somehow.” (female, 11)

“You re a photographer and that means you’re an artist. And I’ve seen your pictures and they are different. I like them. Right from the beginning I liked you and felt comfortable with you. I’ve never minded being naked with you. In fact I really like it. I like my body, especially my legs, the backs of my arms, and my eyes. So I want to take off my clothes and have you take pictures of me. Someday when I grow up, I’ll hang them on my wall.” (female, 11)

“I don t really like my body much. Because I hate my skin. It never gets brown. I’m skinny and gangly. I wouldn’t care what I looked like, if only I could get tan, especially my legs. White legs make you feel stupid. I burn and peel or else stay pure white. People ask me, ‘Don’t you ever get brown?’ If only I did.” (female, 13)

“Once we pulled the shades and put a blanket over the front door. We took all our clothes off and put bathrobes on. We were partners with our friends, not with sisters because that’s no fun. We pretended a man called and told us to strip. So we all did. We even took our beads off. We got scared when we heard the floor creaking. We kept hearing noises, but no one was there. We slowly helped each other undress—it was better that way. And we’d drop the bathrobe on the floor. It was fun and sexy, too. I like to remember it.” (female, 9)

“I’ve never seen boys without clothes. Except my brother when he was about ten. Nancy and I were playing in the attic when Jonathan came up in his bathrobe and opened it and said, ‘Look.’ I was surprised. I did look, but I can hardly remember. And anyway, he was just my brother, not that other boys would look so different, but it would be more interesting, I guess.” (female, 13)

“I try to remember my dreams in the morning when I wake up. I find that if I lie really still and don’t even move my head, it’s easier to remember them. It’s very annoying when they escape me, and no amount of concentrating will bring them back. I like to think about my dreams. Since I’m the one who dreamed them, they must be trying to tell me things.” (female, 11)

Starr Ockenga (official website)