EAST LANSING, Mich. — A Michigan State University professor’s photographs that show him posing with students both nude and in various states of dress 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. Coverage by the State News student newspaper drew attention last month at the East Lansing campus to Guthrie’s photos, which depict the teacher, 65, 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 e-mail to the Detroit News, Guthrie, whose biography on the university’s Web site says he has been a faculty member for 13 years, declined an interview and wrote: “It is not a great climate for being edgy in the area of sexuality.”
An e-mail seeking comment from Guthrie, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History, was sent Wednesday by the Associated Press.
The school has determined that 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 enrolled in his classes to model for photographs.
“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,” the statement said.
Laura Merrihew, whose daughter attends Michigan State, 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 told the Detroit News. “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.’ ”
But others 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 told the Detroit News.
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 e-mail 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 told the Detroit News via e-mail 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.