If you’re surprised to see this cover of the “New York Post” on this blog, you will be even more surprised by the following account, written by my friend Richard Renaldi. Richard had told me about the basics of the story a little while ago, and I had offered him to publish his account on my blog. This morning, I received an email with Richard’s side of the story, to be found below the fold (I added a few links).
This is a strange story of unintended consequences. In the summer of 2000 I made an 8x10 photograph of my partner Seth standing naked on the shore of Lake Michigan. I had originally envisioned this picture as part of a series I was working on at the time called “Naked Gay Friends”. However, this single image of my partner Seth ended up being included in a group show at the Yossi Milo Gallery in 2003.
One of the buyers of this photograph was an Australian financier and art collector named Mark O’Donnell. Mark lived in New York City, and over the years, as he collected several more of my photographs, the two of us became friends. About a year ago, Mark was introduced to the then recent former governor of New Jersey, Jim McGreevey. They started dating and soon were making plans to live together. Jim had also at that time begun writing his memoir and he asked me to take the cover photograph for the book that would later be published as “The Confession.” On our photo shoots, I got to know Jim a little better and I also met his lovely daughter Jacqueline. Mark and Jim eventually bought a large colonial house in suburban New Jersey and Mark’s art collection naturally went with them. After Mark moved out of New York City, I saw him much less, but last December he invited Seth and me to a Christmas party at their house. It was a funny mix of Mark’s mostly gay, lesbian and artist friends, and Jim’s more conservative New Jersey political and Democratic Party chums. Mark’s art collection was on full display and the picture of Seth naked was hanging prominently in the bedroom.
The next time I saw Mark was in February at the opening of my show in Chelsea - and Mark had a story for us. Apparently, someone had snapped a cellphone photo of Seth and shown it Jim McGreevey’s ex wife, Dina. She then sued for custody of their child Jacqueline, saying that exposure to the picture of Seth was harming their daughter. Rather than fight her on this, Mark and Jim complied with the wishes of the former first lady and removed the picture from their house altogether. They gave it to a female friend who also has two small children of her own, but who apparently had no problem with them seeing the picture.
About 3 weeks ago I got a call from Mark telling me that the photograph of Seth was mentioned in some of Jim’s and Dina’s court filings regarding custody of their daughter. He thought I should know because he said the media would probably be contacting me. I said I would let him know if they did and we left it at that. Then I totally forgot about it.
Last weekend, we happened to be in Kentucky visiting Seth’s parents when I got a call from a NY Post reporter. She wanted to interview me about the photograph mentioned in Dina McGreevey’s filing. I said I would have to call her back. I then called Mark and he had already discussed it with Jim and they both felt that it would be a good thing to have the photograph made public and for me to talk about the work so as to dispel any imaginings in the minds of the public that the picture might be pornographic or indecent. I called the reporter back from the Post and she asked me a few questions, tried to get me to make a few judgments. I would have to say I was both apprehensive and a little curious about the effect of having this photograph published in the NY Post. Reluctant of course because I don’t exactly share Rupert Murdoch’s politics, but curious about what it might bring forth in terms of publicity for my work.
Well I got my answer that Sunday morning when the phone had started ringing off the hook. Seth’s picture made the cover. Bear in mind, Alberto Gonzalez’ calamitous and embarrassing Congressional testimony had just wrapped up, but my nude boyfriend was deemed cover material that Sunday morning! To the Post’s credit, the actual story was factual and in our opinion fair. As the day progressed I started to grow tired of talking about it, and at one point Seth’s parents’ home phone rang and it was for us. It was a producer from Inside Edition (how they got his mother’s home phone number in Kentucky we have no idea) and they wanted us to come in for a sit down interview to tell “our side” of the story. We of course laughed and declined.
That evening, after reading some both nice and nasty things about the photograph in the blogosphere (one person did not like my partner’s belly button!), I received a threatening email. The text of the email read: ” You are a dirty boy and shame on you for bringing smut into the home of a former NJ governor, and a very young girl. How is a six year old going to recover from seeing a naked man on display. The city is outraged, NJ is outraged, the country is outraged and you must suffer. I wouldn’t be surprised if you and Seth were kicked off the NYC island, for the dirty deed you did, but you didn’t here it from me first. Watch for incoming fire bombs through your front windows.” This really unnerved me and I was unable to get to sleep that evening.
I received a couple more requests the next day to use the photo - one from People magazine and then this past week NBC and ABC both requested it from me. I at that point was no longer interested in the photograph being used by the media. They had the post clippings and the fair use law allows them to use it anyway even without my permission. Inside Edition also called us 4 more times and then called my gallery and lied to them saying I’d given my permission - hoping that they wouldn’t check in with me.
The adage that any publicity is good publicity for me has been put to the test and in my experience I would really have to say it was a draw. There was a level of nuisance to all of this and the death threat had me on edge, but in the end it seemed all rather trivial and silly. I was disappointed that a couple of my family members seemed more impressed with my appearance in the gossip pages than they had been when my first book was published last year. I ended up with a couple of half-serious inquires about my work, a few more book sales on Amazon, and someone bought another picture of Seth from my gallery. If in the end, if this whole affair brought my photography to the attention of people who had not previously known it, then that is a good thing. And hopefully the McGreevey’s will share custody of their daughter, and she’ll have Mark there along the way fostering an appreciation for the arts.
- Richard Renaldi