NEW YORK -- Clarissa Dalrymple remembers the day her close friend Robert Mapplethorpe arrived at her tiny downtown apartment, as she had asked him to, to photograph her son. Jesse was an energetic 5-year-old then, dashing about the kitchen without his clothes on, "being a bit of a nuisance, not sitting still enough." It took Mapplethorpe, who'd known Jesse all his young life, half an hour or so to coax him onto the velvet chair next to the refrigerator and take the picture he had in mind.

When Mapplethorpe brought Dalrymple the print, "I thought it was beautiful; I've never had any doubts about it," she says. She's hung it above the sofa in her apartment. Jesse's father, film director Jim McBride, displays another print in his kitchen in Los Angeles. "I think it's gorgeous, partly because my son is so gorgeous," he says. "We were shocked to turn on 'Nightline' one night and see our child, slightly censored."

This photograph of a nude boy, taken in 1976 and titled "Jesse McBride," is one of seven Mapplethorpe photographs that have led a Cincinnati grand jury to indict the Contemporary Arts Center and its director on obscenity charges. The fact that the child's parents, and the parents of other children whom Mapplethorpe photographed, were friends who commissioned and consented to the photography is likely to become an issue in the case, in which pretrial hearings began this week.

The relevant Ohio statute forbids the possession or viewing of "any material or performance that shows a minor who is not the person's child or ward in a state of nudity," but makes an exception if the parent has consented in writing to the photographing and to the manner in which the material is used. Lawyers defending the museum have secured affidavits from the children's parents, but attorney Louis Sirkin said he could not discuss when or how he planned to use them.

Frank Prouty, senior assistant prosecutor for the city of Cincinnati, also declined to comment on whether parental consent would affect the case, except to note that "under the statute, that's one provision there."

Two images of children in the Mapplethorpe exhibit, both deemed obscene along with five prints depicting sexual activity among adult men, have drawn much of the fire from the outraged Citizens for Community Values. The group has spoken of the "possible harm" of photos "depicting the genitals of prepubescent children"; at a news conference in Cincinnati a local business publisher said the pictures constitute "abuse of children."

The other child portrait, taken the same year and alternately titled "Rosie" or "Honey" in different shows, is of a 4- or 5-year-old girl seated on a stone bench, her upraised knees revealing that she is wearing no underwear beneath her dress. This is the picture that particularly offended Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and at one point led him to tell a reporter, "I'm embarrassed to even talk to you about this. I'm embarrassed to talk to my wife." Yet Rosie's parents, who do not want to talk to the press, were also Robert Mapplethorpe's longtime friends, as was their daughter, now 18. Rosie's mother, like Clarissa Dalrymple, has signed an affidavit.

In New York, Mapplethorpe's art world friends often asked or permitted him to photograph their kids and, in the case of well-known painter Brice Marden, recommended him as a portraitist to other parents. In these circles, 5-year-old Jesse was as likely to be photographed naked as clothed. Brice Marden and his wife, Helen, matter-of-factly keep a Mapplethorpe catalogue open in their home. They took their daughters Melia, now 9, and Mirabelle, 11, to the 1988 Mapplethorpe retrospective at the Whitney to see the photo he'd taken of Melia -- also unclothed -- when she was 3.

A gulf of mutual incomprehension separates this community from conservative groups in Cincinnati, where people offended by those same portraits accuse the photographer who took them of exploiting children who'd grown up seeing him at family dinners. Mapplethorpe's friends would find the whole situation absurd, almost comical, if it didn't make them so angry.

"It isn't a pornographic photograph; I don't know what they're talking about," says Dalrymple, director of the Petersburg Gallery in SoHo. "From Robert's point of view and the child's it's a horrifying way to interpret something."

"I think these people are nuts," says Jim McBride. "I wish they'd leave everybody alone to see what they want to see. But if there's going to be a fight, I'm happy to be in the middle of it." An independent filmmaker turned Hollywood director -- his movies include "Great Balls of Fire," "The Big Easy" and "Breathless" (for which Mapplethorpe did the still photography) -- McBride was living in California in 1976. (He and Dalrymple didn't marry: "We were hippie artists," he says.) But McBride says he certainly would have consented to having their son, who lived with him most of the year and spent summers in New York, photographed by Mapplethorpe. "I knew him to be a terrific photographer and a friend of the family. I didn't see anything threatening or disturbing about it at all."

Helen Marden, for whom Mapplethorpe was "literally the boy next door" on Bond Street, is equally outraged. "No way are these obscene," she says of the photographs. "How many children in America live in poverty? What's obscene is what happens to women and children in this country and how it's tolerated. And then to pick on this ... what an easy target, these elegant photographs."

However notorious the photographs have become -- in part because of Mapplethorpe's homosexuality and the fact that he died from complications of AIDS -- he was, to these parents, nearly family. "He came for dinner, for Thanksgiving," recalls Helen Marden. "The girls knew him all their lives. They were very upset when he got sick."

Over the years of their friendship, Mapplethorpe photographed Helen Marden, who's also a painter; the daughters, with clothing and without; and the family together. Sometimes he asked to photograph the children; sometimes the parents asked him to. "Robert in no way exploited children; Robert was wonderful with children," Brice Marden says. "He didn't play down to them. He really respected them. And they were never uncomfortable with him. He'd never make a child do anything she didn't want to."

The photograph of Melia, which does not appear in the Cincinnati show but has been included in several other Mapplethorpe exhibits, was taken at his studio. "Melia immediately took her clothes off; that's how she was then," her mother recalls. Unwilling to pose, the girl was running around the studio and Mapplethorpe "took {the picture} quickly as she was passing by." The print shows her from the rear, running away from the camera; a triptych hanging in the Marden home includes front views as well.

In the intervening years, some of the children Mapplethorpe photographed have grown old enough to form their own opinions. Melia Marden says, with unassailable 9-year-old logic, that "everyone was born without clothes" and that she likes the picture Mapplethorpe took of her "because it's funny."

Jesse McBride, who will turn 19 this month, is traveling in India before beginning college at Sarah Lawrence in the fall. He saw the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Berkeley and, his father reports, "was kind of amused and a little bit tickled that he was the center of controversy."

Last fall, after the exhibit had been bounced by the Corcoran Gallery of Art but had not yet caused indictments and trial in Cincinnati, Jesse McBride told critic Ingrid Sischy of the New Yorker that he remembered "jumping around and laughing" while Mapplethorpe tried to photograph him. "It was fun -- Robert snapping away, and my mom laughing." At a slightly older age, Jesse was embarrassed to have his friends see him naked; he used to turn the photo to the wall when other kids came over. But now, "when I look at the photograph I think it's a really beautiful picture. I think back to when I was so young and innocent. I look particularly angelic."