EAST LANSING, Mich. (The Blaze/AP) — A Michigan State University associate professor’s nude photographs that show him posing with students — both clothed and nude — have prompted questions about art and ethics among some associated with the school.
Danny Guthrie’s work is well-known by campus officials, who have reviewed the issue, The Detroit News reported Wednesday. But coverage by The State News student newspaper drew recent attention at the East Lansing campus to Guthrie’s photos, which depict the 65-year-old teacher bare-chested in some photos, while in others he’s fully clothed. Guthrie poses with male and female students, faculty and colleagues and often is touching them.
In an email to The Detroit News, Guthrie, whose biography on the university’s website says he has been a faculty member there for 13 years, declined an interview and wrote: “It is not a great climate for being edgy in the area of sexuality.”
But, The State News did have an account from Guthrie about his work:
Guthrie said the photographs are based on famous works of art throughout history and represent how individuals interact.
“[The photographs are] about my loss of youth and impending doom,” he said. “Once you give up when you get older, you don’t live in a sexual arena anymore.”
Because he is retiring at the end of this year, Guthrie said he felt the need to seize his opportunity to work with students and decided to continue his work creating collaborative nude photographs.
“I want (viewers) to be compelled by the image and to care if they can get past any initial shock value,” he said.
The school has determined there’s a protocol in place so students do not feel pressured to participate, Heather Swain, interim vice president for university relations, said in a statement. She said Guthrie does not recruit students currently enrolled in his classes to model for photographs.
Here’s what The State News reported of how Guthrie acquires models:
To create his art, Guthrie said he approaches students he feels would be open to the project. He then emails images he would like to recreate for the student to view, and the student describes what poses he or she is comfortable with.
Reactions to Guthrie’s photography differ. Guthrie recalled one students’ anonymous comment declaring he or she would not enroll in a photography class for fear of having Guthrie as a professor. He said he isn’t surprised by the negative feedback but sometimes is hurt by the harsh level of the comments.
“I want people to think, but I don’t want them to get angry,” he said. “I don’t want to make my students uncomfortable.”
“Sometimes art, and the means by which it is expressed, evokes strong responses — both for and against it. In situations where the art relates to an academic activity, MSU’s main concern is to maintain the integrity of the teaching and learning environment,” Swain’s statement said.
Laura Merrihew of the southern Michigan community of Brooklyn has a daughter who attends Michigan State. She has been lobbying university officials to stop Guthrie’s photos after a relative showed her a column written by a student challenging Guthrie’s work.
“This man has breached the bounds of the student-professor relationship,” Merrihew said. “His pictures are sexually motivated and they are taking advantage of the students. There are several with totally nude girls that he’s holding and touching.
“To think that he is participating in this and not thinking: ‘What good luck I have to be able to do this and get away with this.’”
Others, however, have defended Guthrie’s photographs. Henry Brimmer, an assistant professor in Michigan State’s Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Retailing, said those raising questions don’t understand that Guthrie is a serious artist.
“His work is gorgeous, it is beautiful, it is well done, it has significance,” Brimmer said.
Those who choose to participate are volunteers, Swain said, and they determine the extent of their participation and approve the final photographs. She noted in an email Wednesday that the university has not received complaints from participants.
“While we understand the shock value of Professor Guthrie’s art, it is not sexual harassment and does not violate university policies. Whether students, as adults, choose to model for him is not something the university can or should control,” she said.
Michael Hersrud, a former Michigan State assistant professor in graphic design, said he chose to pose with a female faculty member. Now an assistant professor for Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, he said via email that Guthrie’s work challenges perceptions of art and media.
“A painting of a nude figure prior to photography was not always viewed as “art,” but over time we have come to accept this nude painting as a work of art,” Hersrud said.
You can view more of Guthrie’s images on his MSU portfolio.