The girl sits on the bed, spine arched backwards, leg kicked high in the air. Dressed in denim shorts and black leather boots, her slim frame is tanned and lithe. She seems amused at her own audacity: her mouth is open in a cabaret gasp, her tongue licking her lips suggestively while wisps of blonde hair frame her face.
This photograph, by Valerie Phillips, is one of 68 currently on show in Jaguarshoes bar, near Old Street. The exhibition, entitled “You’re so sexy baby – shut the fuck up” is made up of photographs of Lacy, a girl from Oklahoma, whom Ms Phillips met while researching one of her books and who has since become one of her most prolific subjects. What has caused controversy is that in most of the pictures, Lacey is between 13 and 16 years old.
The previously unseen images range from Lacey looking after horses on a farm to more controversial images of her in a glamourous dress posing on a table or wearing a bikini in a swimming pool. The images are possessing, attractive, and so all the more disturbing when a second glance reveals that the seductress is a nymphet in her early teens. Yet outright condemnation misunderstands the issue.
The exhibition, which takes its title from a conversation between Lacy and her boyfriend at the breakfast table, in which he said “You’re so sexy baby”, to which she replied “shut the fuck up”, has been met with mixed reviews. The bar reports to have received several comments from customers perturbed by the pictures, although no official complaints have been lodged.
Steve, a barman at Jaguarshoes, says that one of them was from a man purporting to be from the NSPCC, which has offices nearby. He says: “Yeah, he wasn’t too happy about it. But that’s art – that’s what it’s supposed to do.” The NSPCC say that they have no official position on the matter.
Ms Phillips, an internationally-recognised photographer who divides her time between New York and London, says she is baffled by the complaints. “I always think it’s really funny that something so uncontroversial could cause so much controversy,” she says. “People aren’t comfortable with portraying the natural process of growing up. People want to be alarmed by things that aren’t the slightest bit alarming.”
As a professional photographer, Ms Phillips has published four books of her own work, as well as fashion shoots for British Elle, Nylon magazine and artwork for the single Indian Summer by the Manic Street Preachers. She believes that many people are uncomfortable with real-life depictions of teenage sexuality outside of the mainstream media.
She says: “I think it’s really interesting that people can deal with it when it’s a big celebrity on a poster in a bus shelter. Meanwhile I’ve got this girl who for all intents and purposes isn’t wearing anything particularly revealing who’s in her mid-teens and suddenly people are shocked.”
However, punters at the Jaguarshoes bar seemed unfazed by the collage of pictures across the walls. Maria, 23, from Old Street, says: “There’s so much art that’s more provocative than that. All girls try to be sexualised at that age.”
Rob, 24, who lives nearby, thinks people are only uncomfortable because of their own reactions. Pointing to one that shows Lacey dressed in a bikini lying in a swimming pool he says: “At first I thought: ‘That’s fit’. Then, when I saw how old she was, I thought: ‘Oh, that’s a bit wrong.’ But I think it’s excessive for people to complain.”
A spokesperson for Jaguarshoes says: “We have received no formal complaints and do not expect to.”