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Light & Shadows 

Photographer Jock Sturges, under fire - again

Wednesday, Mar 4 1998
Last week, a grand jury in Montgomery, Alabama, indicted Barnes & Noble on charges of disseminating "obscene material containing visual reproduction of persons under 17 years of age involved in obscene acts." The materials in question were two photography books, Radiant Identities by Jock Sturges, and another by David Hamilton. An exhibition of Sturges' new work opens this week at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery.

Sturges is a fine-art photographer, much of whose work includes nude portraits of children and adolescents from "naturist" families in Northern California and Europe. For the past decade he's been dogged by charges of pornography. Eight years ago next month, his studio was raided by the FBI, but in that case a San Francisco grand jury refused to indict. In recent months, his books (as well as Hamilton's and Sally Mann's) have come under attack - sometimes literally - by Randall Terry's right-to-life group, Operation Rescue. These efforts, supported by James Dobson's Focus on the Family, led to last week's indictment, as well as one in Tennessee in November.

Of these new charges, Sturges says, "People need to realize that a cultural war has been declared here. A virulent, aggressive minority has decided that Americans don't themselves know what it is they should see, and need to be protected by people who are wiser, even if they are only a tiny sliver of the population. This represents a whole new level of attention to the arts by [those people]. It's very scary and it has to be withstood."

The Weekly recognizes that the issues surrounding Sturges' work are complex. Complicating matters is a 1995 film, Art for Teachers of Children, made by former Sturges model Jennifer Montgomery, who claims the story is based on a sexual affair she had with the photographer beginning when she was 14. (She refused to cooperate with the FBI investigation.) In the following interview, conducted in 1994 by writer David Steinberg and published here for the first time, Sturges discusses his legal problems, the nature of his work, and his evolving relationships with his models. The photographer will be on hand for the opening at Paul Kopeikin (Friday, March 6) and will give an informal gallery talk on Saturday; see Calendar art listings for details.DAVID STEINBERG: You've said that you don't want to dwell on your legal situation.

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JOCK STURGES: Not really. The problem with being investigated as invasively as I [have been] is that you run the risk of having that episode be the defining event in your life. I have no desire to be defined by such assholes, period. What I'm good at is making art. [The FBI] came, they did not conquer, they went away, and they made me fairly famous in the process. It's no small irony that the government inevitably and invariably ends up promoting precisely that which they would most [like] to repress.

STEINBERG: Has that in fact happened to you?

STURGES: Well, yes and no. My work was doing pretty well, and now it is doing dramatically better. Is that because people are collecting the pictures because of their notoriety? Or simply because people are more aware of the work? I'll never get to know. It's really, really hard to make it as a fine-art photographer exclusively. Now that I [have], I'm permanently deprived of the pleasure of knowing whether that's based entirely on my work's merit or on [my] notoriety.

All my life I've taken photographs of people who are completely at peace being what they were in the situations I photographed them in. In very many cases that was without clothes, and it simply was not an issue. They were without clothes before I got there, and they were without clothes when I left. It never occurred to me that anybody could find anything about that perverse, which is obviously evidence of my having been pretty profoundly naive about the American context. But it's a naivete that I really don't want to abandon, not even now.

STEINBERG: Once you've been through all that, I can't imagine how you can take photographs now without having that somewhere in your mind.

STURGES: There are photographs that I don't take now, that I previously would have taken without any thought at all as to any misinterpretations. The truth is that people who are naturists, who are used to being without clothes, are unselfconscious about how they sit around, how they throw themselves down on the ground, how they sit in a chair. Before, I'd photograph anything. Now I realize that there are certain postures and angles that make people see red, and I avoid that. It's difficult. At one point, my wife found me crossing legs, avoiding angles, giving instructions which inadvertently were telling young people that what they were doing was profane, that some aspect of them was inherently profane. I've had to re-learn how I work with people so as not to send any messages [like that]. I'm the last person who has any desire to instruct anybody in shame. That's no errand for me.

  • Photographer Jock Sturges, under fire - again

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