Irina Ionesco is French photographer known for her sensual and sometimes controversial work. She reminds me a little bit of Ellen von Unwerth and a little bit of Sarah Moon. Her crisp black-and-white images focus on artificial beauty and harbor a fetishistic fascination with lace, beads, fake flowers and other textures. Born in 1935 in Romania, Ionesco traveled the world and painted before discovering photography. She is a cult favorite among alt photographers, and her influence can be seen in the work of John Santerineross and Tina Cassati.
What made Ionesco’s work controversial? Her most prolific model was her daughter, Eva. At a young age, Eva posed semi-nude for her mother to create artsy, erotic images similar to Irina’s work with older models. Some images of Eva by Irina (NSWF links ahoy!), though nude, look more like a child playing dress-up to me, but others have a distinct fetish element. To me, these are some of Ionesco’s most powerful images.
Irina’s daughter Eva went on to model and act in many productions that no normal parent would ever let their child near today. It makes me wonder how her career would’ve gone if she hadn’t started posing for the images above. At age 11, she became the youngest model ever to appear in a Playboy pictorial by Jacques Bourboulon in 1976 (check out his doleful Wikipedia entry). Two years later, her images appeared in a Spanish edition of Penthouse in a selection of her mother’s photographs. Eva’s acting debut, also at age 11, was in The Tenant by Roman Polanski (yikes!). That same year she appeared as a Lolita-type character in a soft-core sci-fi film called Spermula. Her career wasn’t all erotic, and she soon graduated to playing varied roles in French cinema and on stage that didn’t revolve around sexuality.
Is it OK to take artistic nude pictures of your children, to publish them? I say yes, depending on context. Sally Mann did it – she too got accused of child pornography – and these images have made her one of America’s most prolific photographers, not because of the controversy, but because the images resonated with people. They recalled the confusion and turmoil of being a female and discovering your sexuality at a young age, a taboo subject that Mann addressed powerfully. Then again, Sally Mann never let her images of children appear in fucking Penthouse. On the other hand, in 1970s Europe, the level of stigma attached to taking sexual images of underage girls was much lower than what it is today, so Ionesco may have had the excuse of a different time, a different culture. My first instinct is to defend Ionesco because the images are beautiful, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder about the ethics of showcasing her daughter the way that she did.
Was Ionesco an irresponsible parent, or a product of her time?