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Feds In Maine Confiscate Photograph, Call it Pornography

June 29, 1990

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) _ A photograph of a nude father and son is pornographic, say federal officials who seized the print and want to destroy it, even though it has been widely exhibited and published as a work of art.

″It’s not an obscene photograph - not even close,″ said Robert E. Mittel, a Portland lawyer who is fighting to get the picture by photographer Walter Chappell out of the hands of authorities.

U.S. Attorney Richard S. Cohen has a different view of the black and white print, called ″Father and son,″ which was taken in the early 1960s and shows Chappell in the nude with an erect penis as he holds his infant son.

″I’m not an artist,″ Cohen said Friday. ″I’m generally very liberal on these things, but I do personally find it quite offensive.″

The signed picture of Chappell, who lives in El Rito, N.M., was seized this winter by U.S. Customs officials at the Canadian border crossing in Houlton.

Two friends of the owner, Birgit Lenderink, were trying to take the picture from Ms. Lenderink’s old home in Canada to her current home at a meditation center in Vermont. Mittel would not say where his client lives because she does not want to be bothered by reporters.

Once the picture was confiscated, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Chapman filed an action titled ″United States of America v. One Obscene Photograph.″ Chapman is seeking permanent federal custody of the print so it can be destroyed.

″The defendant is a mounted and framed photograph which is a lascivious exhibition of adult male genitals touching a young child,″ says Chapman’s filing, which calls the picture ″obscene and immoral.″

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a curator of photography found the federal action disturbing.

″This picture has been around for nearly 30 years,″ Peter Galassi said by telephone. ″In the photographic world, it’s a picture that’s been known for a long time, along with other pictures by Chappell. It’s very surprising to see all of a sudden that the U.S. government is upset by this picture.″

The print has appeared in a coffee-table picture book of American nude photography published by Harper & Row, Mittel and Galassi said.

″Harper & Row does not publish pornography,″ Mittel said.

No court dates have been set. Cohen’s office has sent a copy of the photograph to the obscenity unit at the Justice Department to see what officials there think.

Chappell did not immediately return a phone message that The Associated Press left on his home answering machine in El Rito, a farming community about 40 miles north of Santa Fe. The artist did not want to discuss the controversy but might issue a statement in a few days, said art dealer Andrew Smith, who handles much of Chappell’s work.

The case in Maine comes as other issues of expression have stirred nationwide controversy, including flag burning, the lyrics of the rap group 2 Live Crew and the sexually explicit photographs of the late Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe’s work often has been cited in the debate over proposed restrictions on the types of art that can receive federal funding.

Proving the Chappell picture is obscene might be difficult in Maine, where voters in 1986 rejected a statewide obscenity ordinance, observers say.

″It’s an interesting case in light of the other issues that are looming nationally in terms of censorship and other issues affecting art grants,″ said Dick Dyer, a Maine Arts Commission spokesman who called Chappell a legitimate artist.

″He is a nationally recognized photographer,″ Dyer said. ″The idea of obscene art is really an oxymoron. If it’s art, it can’t be obscene.″

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