“Is that Porn?” Insight from Photographer Mark Mabry

In the preface to his beautiful book of photography, Reflections on Christ, LDS artist Mark Mabry discusses a year-long process he went through to find himself and his path in the world as he approached the age of 30 and became worried about his future. Looking for brilliant one-shot insights to find success, his path of introspection and prayer led instead to an unexpected, gradual path of “step-by-step life-changing promptings.” The first was “change your music.” That direction was clear, simple, and direct. His iPod was filled with wide variety of music, some of it rather questionable. He made some drastic changes. “Changing my music lifted my spirit. I could go in and out of mental prayer without so much white noise. I could love deeper and communicate better. My command of language improved.”

His next step might seem even more drastic. He ended up throwing away his art books. He went to a meeting for men in the Church that dealt with the dangers of pornography. It hadn’t been an issue for him, but he had two sons and worried for them. He then considered the issue of nudes in the art of photography:

I thought about how in art school, it was not uncommon for an instructor to use “artistic nude” photographs to illustrate the beauty of light and the human form. At first I was caught off-guard by the images, but soon I began to accept that it wasn’t pornography, but art. As I sat in the meeting that day, my mind turned to my growing collection of books by legendary photographers. Most of them had “artistic nudes” that were beautifully lit and well-printed. I was envious of their technical prowess.

I asked in my mind, “Heavenly father, is that porn?” Instead of a warm, “yes, son,” I felt the incredulous stare of a living Father. After the meeting, I drove straight to my studio, gathered my art collection, and dumped it in the recycle bin outside.

I felt liberated and closer to God. The experience made me pause to evaluate the power of my chosen medium. I had to ask the question again: How can I be righteous in a field where most of the legends are not?

Sometimes the things we spend years justifying, if considered honestly and taken before God, may well deserve an incredulous stare that should drive us to quick repentance. What one person may need to discard or change might not be the same as another, but I suppose that we all have a few incredulous stares waiting for us, and some clearing out of trash in our lives that really shouldn’t wait any longer.

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Author: Jeff Lindsay

71 thoughts on ““Is that Porn?” Insight from Photographer Mark Mabry

  1. Interesting timing on this post. I just turned 30 and am undergoing the process of changing my music – throwing out all of the songs with swearing (if I can't find a clean version) and the ones with a poor spirit and replacing my iTunes/iPod with harmonious melodies of Paul Cardall, Jon Schmidt, relaxing piano jazz, etc. music that I can listen to and still feel the spirit. Music that I know my Stake President would listen to.

    At the same time, I am changing my ways from justifying certain adult scenes to constantly remembering the "let virtue garnish they thoughts unceasingly."

    And what a perfect time to begin, with the New Year a day away – a time to rethink who we are, where we are, and what God wants us to become.

    Thanks for this post Jeff!

  2. I guess I'm confused about why art books are porn. To me, the question isn't the subject matter, but why we're looking at it. Reasoning by analogy, a favorite topic of conversation in our home is the Word of Wisdom. As my better half is fond of pointing out, if the purpose behind the WoW is to avoid the use of mind altering substances (and so safeguard our connection to Heavenly Father), then half of the Mormons in Utah are violating it with ice cream. If you're eating ice cream (or chili cheese fries, or whatever) to feel better, or cope with stress, or whatever (the ubiquitous "comfort eating"), then you're violating the spirit of the WoW just as much as someone who turns to beer for the same reasons.

    The human body is beautiful; Heavenly Father created us to inhabit these bodies, and, as the Scriptures affirm, our bodies are our Temples–they're Sacred, and should be treated as such. So while it's wrong to look at naked pictures in order to incite lust (duh), why is it wrong to look at naked pictures in order to gain a more full appreciation of Heavenly Father's gift to, and purpose for us?

    Many of the most uplifting works of art we have (e.g. the Sistine Chapel) feature people, who just happen to be naked. The purpose of these murals, paintings, etc. aren't to incite lust, but to aid in our appreciation of Heavenly Father's plan. Are we supposed to avoid these works of art, just because they feature naked people?

  3. When I returned home from my mission, my father spoke in a ward conference my first Sunday home. His topic was about personal inventory, in which we assess our own standing compared with the Lord's expectation for us. He had recently undergone that process himself as he and my mother lived in West Africa, the only members of the church in their area for about two years.

    I've also done a similar inventory. Mine didn't involve photo books (I'm neither an artist nor a photographer), but revolved at one time about career choices that would (or would not) allow me to practice my religion as I wanted to (for myself and my growing family).

    Each of us will make these difficult decisions for ourselves. It seems this post isn't calling us to clean out our coffee table books, but to examine our lives to see if we're living up to what the Lord expects, and to make changes where required.

    Great food for thought.

    P

  4. Good points all.

    I'm a big fan of Mabry 😀

    I think, CJ, that it is really up to us to judge, and go by the Spirit. As I believe Jeff said, it is up to us to choose what we should keep/get rid of in our personal inventory to keep us close to God.

  5. "You mormons are the type of people who would put pants on Michaelangelo's "David". Sheesh."
    A little condescending, but, yes. Comment was spot on.
    I find it funny that porn is so scorned by LDS when there are other things that are more addictive and destructive. Porn does not destroy families, it is the perception and belief of what porn is that destroys families.

  6. .

    Mark Mabry did the right thing. He discarded his pornographic art books.

    C.J. and Tony: Yes it is up to us to judge what we will do. But the pornographic nature of material exists independant of the person looking at it.

    The essential characteristic of pornography from a gospel perspective is its offensiveness to modesty or chastity. In fact, this is how the entire Judeo-Christian society identified pornography for hundreds of years. As far as I can tell, every dictionary of the English language published anywhere in the world before 1957 equates obscenity with offensiveness to modesty and/or chastity (click here).

    Modesty was born when Adam and Eve made fig-leaf aprons. The LDS standard of modesty is defined by the temple garment. The garment covers nakedness that should not be exposed in public. Keeping our bodies appropriately covered is modesty.

    But society has forgotten its six-thousand year old tradition of Judeo-Christian decency. Are we therefore, as Latter-day Saints, justified in doing the same? Have the laws of God changed? Have the Biblical laws of modesty and chastity been repealed?

  7. A woman considered modest today would not have been modestly dressed a 100 years ago. Even our Temple Garments have been altered in keeping with what is modest in today's world.
    Modesty and what is modest has changed.
    This idea that any photo painting, sculpture etc of a nude woman or unclothed in any way is Porn is wrong. I don't think the Louvre or musee d'orsay hang porn on their walls. I certainly would not go to Church to ask them what is considered porn. Most of the people in my ward have no education past high school and do not understand art history.

  8. The art books weren't porn but if he felt he needed to get rid of them he did the right thing. However this is one of those things where what is necessary for one person may not be what is necessary for another. As a fan of photography and art in general I have found through prayer and experience that a nude photograph or painting can be just as inspiring and bring the spirit of the lord into the heart as effectively as a hymn or a prayer so long as the viewer is in the proper state of mind. Someone who can be in that state of mind is no better or worse than someone who may not be able to and there a numerous ways for people to react to such images both good and bad. As others have stated sometimes a self inventory of ones actions and thoughts leads to changes for yourself that may not be required for others, if this man felt prompted to do what he did than it was necessary for him that said I think we as members have a tendency towards thinking that because this man did it it would be required of anyone who asked the same question and as stated earlier my experience of the same things was the opposite. I think we need to be careful how we judge things like this and not necessarily assume that his exact actions should be emulated. That said we should all have the same willingness to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit no matter how much we may have invested in what we are being asked what to give up.

  9. "I asked in my mind, "Heavenly father, is that porn?" Instead of a warm, "yes, son," I felt the incredulous stare of a living Father. After the meeting, I drove straight to my studio, gathered my art collection, and dumped it in the recycle bin outside."
    According to Wiki:
    Pornography or porn is the depiction of explicit sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual excitement.

    So, I am guessing that old Mark had some problems being able to look at the photos without the sexual excitement. Kinda telling he had to pray to know if it was porn or not.
    To me, this is like saying, Thanks for the brain Heavenly Father, but I don't think I will actually use it and just ask you to tell me the answer.

  10. Giving him the benefit of the diubt, I'll accept that he felt like he needed to discard the books for his spirituality. That said, using the word "pornographic" when what you mean is "naked" is, imho, not only inaccurate but irresponsible.

  11. For many centuries, the commonly used definition of obscene (offensiveness to modesty and chastity) was also the legal test for pornography.

    In 1957, the U. S. Supreme Court formulated a new "legal" definition of obscenity. The Court's decision in the case of Roth v. U.S. removed the religious doctrines of modesty and chastity from U.S. obscenity law. This created a new category of obscenity: material that is obscene by traditional scriptural standards, but not obscene under the new legal definition.

    Further clarification of the Roth standard came in 1973 with the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Miller v. California. In that decision, the Court said: "The Roth definition does not reflect the precise meaning of 'obscene' as traditionally used in the English language…. Pornographic material which is [legally] obscene forms a sub-group of all 'obscene' expression, but not the whole." (Miller v. California, 413 U. S. 15, at 18 and 19, 1973.)

    "But not the whole."

    The intrinsic nature of the material hasn't changed. The only thing that changed was its status with respect to the law. The material itself is just as obscene and harmful now as it ever was. For example, for five and a half years in the 1980s, I worked at the Utah State Prison. In my work there I was occasionally confronted with pages clipped from Playboy magazine. Playboy exists within the law, clearly outside the Supreme Court's sub-group. But by gospel standards Playboy is still pornography.

    Citing legal technicalities to prove the morality of public nudity is just a cheap legal maneuver. The gradual erosion of moral standards in the world caused by social implementation of the Supreme Court definition of pornography is not the result of modern enlightenment, it is the result of moral apostasy.

  12. Wow, this is truly frightening. To me it demonstrates the slippery slope of fanaticism. This man is surely educated and intelligent enough to be able to discern the difference between the beauty of the human form and the violence, degredation and filth that constitutes pornography. What's next is he going to burn his National Geographics so his kids won't see them? I greatly admire his work, but this mentality scares the heck out of me! On May 10th, 1933 Students from all over Germany burned upwards of 25000 volumes of books in an effort to "purify" German language and literature.
    Joseph Goebbels praised this action. In a speech to the students he said "The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path…The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you."
    I fear the attitude, especially in LDS youth, toward a sort of Nationalistic (LDS) arrogance of "purity". I see how quickly ideas spread throughout LDS culture and take on a life of their own. Self censorship is one thing, but we need to be aware how quickly this can become societal censorship in the name of "right", and how dangerous that can ultimately be. The last thing we need is a big bonfire at BYU. No one forced those German students to burn books. It began with a thought in someone's mind, and then a word communicated to others, and finally culminated in a deed that began one of the most atrocious periods in modern history. Ideas are powerful when sown in fertile soil, and this man is an icon for many LDS youth.
    Sorry for the rant, censorship of art and literature in the name of "purity" just scares me to death, even if it is only self-imposed censorship of one, it has the power to influence many.

  13. I just want to say this to you R.Gary as I notice you completely ignored my remark in which I mentioned I have prayed about this very same issue and got that complete opposite answer. Here is what the church teaches on the matter and please try to tell me where in an artistic depiction of the human body these do not apply. To quote our 13th article of faith and the apostle Paul who's scripture were used as a basis for it " If there is ANYTHING virtuous, lovely,or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

    It's also of note that while they do not have the models appear nude in their Art courses at BYU they do have students which draw them nude while they model in skin tight body suits. They have also sponsored many arts events and Galleries in which they allowed and displayed works of nude art both male and female.

    So the Church by your definition of pornography,not only supports it and helps encourage others to make it, but peddles it as well as entrance to a large portions of their gallery showings aren't free.

    I find it interesting that most of the people defending nude art have been doing it in a non-contentious manner yet you are determined to not only be contentious but pretentious as well.

    I would strongly urge you to take an inventory of yourself as well you are not defending the right at the moment, your are not on the moral high ground, you are simply stating how it effects yourself and doing it in a very rude and ugly manner towards others. So as in my first post I will say again not everyone is required to do these types of things, you may be, and this photographer may be but their are plenty of us who have prayed sincerely about this issue. It was not because we felt guilty for seeing something but because we were edified and uplifted by it. Since most of us aren't taught that there is a difference we became confused at why we were feeling the spirit, and seeing evidence of God's inspiration in these kinds of works.

    In my own personal case when I am confused I pray about something and when I did I got the distinct and firm answer that not only was there a difference between Art and Pornography, but that Art done in this way is the most sacred and highest form of art. There is nothing that comes even close to showing the workmanship or our lords hands as the human body in all it's shapes and sizes. So rant and rave about laws and definitions all of which have and can be changed but you may want to be wary of calling God's work pornography.

    P.S.
    C.J.
    You are much braver then i am for even putting your initials on your post. You did it knowing the reaction despite the manner in which you stated the truth, you are just as brave as Mark Mabry in my regard.

  14. Anonymous: In 1989 I was commissioned by the Church to write a feature article about pornography for the Ensign magazine. After it was reviewed and approved by Church Correlation, it was published in the August 1989 issue. The article doesn't contradict any apostle or prophet on the subject. So before telling us "what the church teaches on the matter," I suggest you study carefully what the Church currently publishes "on the matter" and what the prophets and apostles have said about pornography.

  15. R. Gary,
    I'll save Anonymous some time–the Church teaches that pornography is evil. It does not, however, teach that representations of nude persons are ipso facto pornographic. Why not? Because they're not. I'd write more, but my phone only fits so much.

  16. Sam B.: Would you mind citing a Church published source (Church magazines, curriculum manual, something like that) for the ipso facto thing, please? And note that this isn't about whether nudity is intrinsically pornographic, it's about what the Church teaches its members about public nudity.

  17. R. Gary,
    Afraid I can't, for two reasons. First, my phone is currently my only internet access. But second, I said that the church doesn't teach that nudity is pornographic.

    Moreover, we are clearly not discussing whether public nudity is pornographic.

  18. (cont) We're discussing whether representations of naked people are always pornographic. Clearly the answer is no. David is a great example. And would David somehow become pornographic if sculpted today? No.

  19. Why is it that Christians can't talk about their personal standards without having critics start ranting about Nazis?

    Mark Mabry was not guided by the Lord to censor anyone besides himself. He wasn't seeking to burn your books or to turn libraries into smoldering rubble. He chose to get rid of his own art books.

    Before you judge him for having some kind of personal problem with whatever was in those books, also recall the context of his conversation with the Lord. He was considering his two young sons. Perhaps the greater risk and the greater need for action was to protect them or to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy in teaching them basic moral standards. Whatever the reason, his sense that these were inappropriate materials in his life and his home leaves no room for hysteria about Nazis or the other fear tactics used to dismiss Christians who wish to keep a wide distance between their standards and those of a world drenched sexual promiscuity and obscenity.

    It's a personal decision for each of us, but there may be some similar things that some LDS folks might want to toss out, choosing to err, if err it is, on the side of caution and moral wholesomeness. For example, perhaps you might want to tank some of the cable TV channels you peek at or that your kids can watch when you're not around. Better to have a few more hours a month doing things besides watching the tube than to risk harming your children with the world's warped views on relationships and intimacy. It's a personal decision, but there may be surprises when we open up our decision making process to input from above. An incredulous stare or two might do us a world of good, if we'll just open up our spiritual senses.

  20. There can be a very fine line between art and pornography. Evidently, Mabry decided his art books crossed the line. I respect him for his decision and applaud him for taking responsibility for what's in his home.

    As a high school teacher, I deal with kids almost everyday who possess drugs and have pornography on their cell phones. It seems like 90% of the time the parents not only don't care, but they defend their child's right to have these materials. They get irritated with the school for "harrasing" their kid. It's disgusting.

    Parenting is becoming a lost art. At least Mabry is trying to do it right.

  21. Jeff I just want to say first I am the anonymous who has posted twice already, Second i want to be clear that as I stated in both my posts that i agree with everything you recently commented 100 percent. I made sure to say that he was no more or LESS righteous than me for his decision and I meant just that. If he needed to do it he needed to do it and none of us have a right to question or judge anything about him from his decision except that he followed the promptings of the spirit. So if you thought I was trying to demean him or his actions I just wanted to make sure that was not my intent. My intent was in fact the same as your comment's which is that some decisions such as his are very personal decisions and we can't judge him or people who receive a different answer because both are following the spirit because both have different lives personalities ect… I'm sorry if my comments came off in such a way that this was not clear. I think your comment is spot on and agree with it but sensed some hostility and feared that some of that was geared towards me because of miscommunication on my part so I am clarifying this at this time.

  22. Re: Michelangelo's David

    "Can there never be another Michelangelo? Ah! Yes! His David in Florence and his Moses in Rome inspire to adulation. Did all such talent run out in that early century? Could not we find an embodied talent like this, but with a soul that was free from immorality and sensuality and intolerance?… Take a da Vinci or a Michelangelo or a Shakespeare and give him a total knowledge of the plan of salvation of God and personal revelation and cleanse him, and then take a look at the statues he will carve and the murals he will paint and the masterpieces he will produce." (Spencer W. Kimball, Ensign, July 1977, p.4; italics added.)

    According to President Kimball, Michelangelo is great in spite of the nudity, not because of it. Kimball is clearly not endorsing artistic representations of naked people.

    Re: BYU and nude art

    "An exhibition of works by illustrator Burton Silverman will open later this month at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. Nude illustrations in his collection, however, won't be shown." (Deseret News, July 17, 2006.)

    "The president of Brigham Young University told students Tuesday he takes responsibility for the controversial decision to exclude four nude statues from a museum exhibit." (Deseret News, Nov. 14, 1997.)

    Exceptions, if any, aren't the rule.

  23. @ R. Gary
    I want to say first off that if this artist found that the nude art was something that he should not have in his home then I think that's great. I'm always excited to see parents that are considering their children's upbringing in such a way.

    What you seem to be saying R. Gary is what I take issue with. There is no universal standard of modesty as much as people would like to claim that there is. As has been pointed out to you (and you seem to have ignored it) what the world and even the chruch considers 'modest' is not a set in stone thing. It's very much a fluid concept. Modesty is a relative notion. It's very much like saying that a person is 'underdressed for wearing a t-shirt and jeans to a fancy ball. In other circumstances that T-shirt and jeans is the correct thing to wear. It depends on the situation. Likewise we see changes in our societies as time goes on. Contrary to what some would like to believe changing fashion is not necessarily a sign of Satan's influence on society. It may be a huge surprise to some but people that live in tropical climates tend to wear less clothing then people in temperate climates. This has obvious reasons, but it has an effect on the culture of a place. There are plenty of fashions in South America that would be seen as 'indecent' here but are not seen as such down there.

    You are saying that your own personal viewpoint on what is 'modest' coincides with some sort of scriptural definition of the word, but as far as I am aware there is not a biblical section that describes the appropriate dress for one to be modest. Also by your own definition Michaelangelo's 'David' would most certainly be porn. It's highly immodest for me to walk around naked in our society and if porn is anything 'immodest' then David would be pornographic. It doesn't matter whether you appreciate the statue inspite of or because of it's nudity. The fact remains that it is naked and it either is pornographic or is not. The honest truth is that there is not set definition and that this is open to interpretation.

    Again, I don't think Marby's decision was bad (and certainly not nazi-esque) but I also don't think (as Marby seems to indicate himself) that his decision is one that is held up by some constant and immutable standard as you seem to be suggesting.

    Please correct me if I have misrepresented your comments though.

  24. @ jeff,
    I just want to make sure that I understood your post correctly. The point was that you believe it is important for us to take inventory in our lives and decide with the Lord's help what things are good or bad for us to be involved in correct? It seems like this has devolved into a debate about whether artistic nudes are porn and I'm assuming that this was not the intended purpose of the post, but it is slightly ambiguous.

  25. "Mark Mabry did the right thing. He discarded his pornographic art books."

    He did the right thing for who? For you or for him?
    Also, He never said his books were porn, you just did though. Without ever seeing them.
    ahhh Gary

  26. C'mon, Dan, "…the Talibanization of American conservatism…"?

    That's a bit harsh isn't it? This is one parent making a decision that effects his own home and nobody else. I'm more concerned with the rising number of parents who have no problem with their daughters sending nude pictures of themselves to their boyfriends or their daughters using sex to get money for clothes. Do you realize how many fathers are PROUD when they find porn on their sons cell phone? This is all much more common than you think.

    Is that just the Playboyization of liberalism?