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.
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.
STEINBERG: The semantics are tricky here, but I'm interested in whether you see your work as erotic. I don't mean erotic as in sexual, and I don't mean erotic as in intending that people who look at your photos become aroused. But certainly, when I look at many of your photos, or when I look at many of Sally Mann's photos, what I see is the natural eroticism of children, or preteens, or teens.
STURGES: Western civilization insists on these concrete demarcations. Before 18, physically you don't exist; after 18, you exist like crazy. It's ridiculous. The truth is that from birth on, Homo sapiens is a very sensual species. There isn't a person alive who doesn't like being caressed. Children masturbate as early as 1 1/2 or 2. They do it spontaneously and without any thought that there's anything evil about making themselves feel good.
Very naturally, the ages of consent are vastly lower in Europe than they are here, in recognition of the fact that when you have people involved with sexuality you may as well make it legal so that . . . you can educate them. In this country, there's an epidemic of unwed and teenage mothers, and yet we have an 18-year-old age of consent which makes them all felons.
As soon as you forbid something, you make it extraordinarily appealing. You also bring shame in as a phenomenon. In the Netherlands the age of consent is, I think, 13. The Dutch quite intelligently recognize that people are sexually active fairly young in their lives in this day and age. One of the results of this is a fascinating demographic: The incidences of child abuse in Holland are vastly less than they are here. Why? Because children belong to themselves in that culture, and if somebody aggresses them – touches them in a way that's inappropriate – they'll talk [about it] and sexual abusers are caught and dealt with.
When moral crusaders raise [age-of-consent] limits, create still higher barriers, they're getting the opposite of what they want. It's very shortsighted, I think, to not understand better how the species works psychodynamically.
STEINBERG: Focus a little on how that affects how you see your work. What you're calling the sensuality of children, or pubescent teenagers – isn't that a major part of what you go for, of what makes a photo of yours work?
STURGES: I'm an artist who's attracted to a specific way of seeing and a way of being. I am fascinated by the human body and all its evolutions. The images I like best are parts of series that I've started, in some cases, with the pregnancies of the mothers of the children in question, and I continue that series right on through the birth of children to the child that resulted from that first pregnancy. I have series that are 25 years long. For instance, I photographed a woman with two children whom I photographed first when she was the age of the older of the two children. I have this naive and quixotic hope that in seeing the physical progress from start to “no finish,” from the beginning on, and looking at the body in all its different changes – looking at the fat-bellied babies, to thinner children, they get straight, they get long, they become sticks, they begin to develop, their hips go, the whole process matures – that people understand that the person occupying that body is more than just a physical object.
The pictures don't objectify: They're about the evolution of personality and self as much as the evolution of the body, because what stays the same is not the body. What stays the same is character, personality. It evolves and matures too, but there are certain ways of standing, there are certain sets to the eyes, there are certain behavioral consistencies, which you can see from the very youngest photographs. It's just always there. It's fascinating to see what stays the same, and what changes.
My hope is that the work is in some way counter-pinup. A pinup asks you to suspend interest in who the person is and occupy yourself entirely with looking at the body, and fantasizing about what you could do with that body, completely ignoring how the person might feel about it. People who make pinup photography don't care who the woman is, what tragedies or triumphs that person's life might encompass. My work hopefully works exactly counter to that. My ambition is that you look at the pictures and realize what complex, fascinating, interesting people every single one of my subjects is.
STEINBERG: Are you surprised when people find your photos erotic?
STURGES: No, not at all. As soon as the system, or an individual in the system, accuses another individual – as I was implicitly accused, because there were never any charges brought against me – the accused is forced into artificial polarities of political posture. As soon as somebody says that you might be x, you have to immediately say, “Oh no, I'm y,” even if in fact the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I found myself serving a sentence of public denial from the very second the raid on my apartment happened. I had to pretend to be something that, quite frankly, I'm probably not, which is a lily-white, absolutely artistically pure human being. In fact, I don't believe I'm guilty of any crimes, but I've always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual and psychological change, and there's an erotic aspect to that. It would be disingenuous of me to say there wasn't.
There it is; so what? That fascination pervades the species from the beginning of time; people just admit to it to varying degrees.
The transactions between me and the people that I photograph are very, very collaborative. I know the families that I photograph extremely well, and I've known them for a very long time. The kids really enjoy what they do. I check with them constantly to make sure that they're really happy to be there. I give them lots of outs so that the pressure of my personality, which children find charming as a rule, does not force them into doing things that they don't want to do.
STEINBERG: How do you do that?
STURGES: I'm always saying, “Are you cold?” “Do you want to stop?” “Have you had enough?” “I don't want you just to be here; I want you to be really glad to be here.” Language like that all the time.
STEINBERG: Do they like posing?
STURGES: They adore it. Are you kidding?
STEINBERG: What do they like about it?
STURGES: They like being taken seriously as people. After they've been in the process for a while, they realize they get all the pictures that we do – the families get a copy of every photograph that I take – and they begin to really enjoy being thought of as beautiful. We live in an age where anonymity is growing in magnitude like a bomb going off. The distance between the lives [of media stars] and our lives is growing all the time. Children feel absolutely invisible, unnoticed, and as if they can make no difference. Time and again, when interviewed about being photographed, they talk about the photography as a way of becoming less anonymous. They like the admiration; they like the thought that somebody thinks that they can be art.
Now, there's [also] what happens after the photographs are made. It's not at all hard for me to imagine that there are some [people] who will buy my book, buy my photographs, look at them and have “impure thoughts.” I can't really do anything about those people, except hope that, if they attend to my work closely enough, that ultimately they'll come to realize that these are real people.
STEINBERG: How does your policy of “informed consent” work for the models? I know you give them ongoing control over their images.
STURGES: Right. I don't let them sign model releases, because who knows how they're going to change? They might marry a Methodist minister from Minnesota and have a very conservative life. I don't want to ever be guilty of making assumptions. [Giving the models control] creates a very complex life for me, I promise you. When I want to use a picture in a book, I've got to call foreign countries, find people, explain the context. My phone bills are astronomical sometimes.
STEINBERG: Have you ever had people who've wanted you to pull pictures?
STURGES: I've had a number of American adolescents who, when they hit high school, said, “I really don't want to see those pictures published right now,” and they were immediately pulled. I lost access to one picture that was going to be in Radiant Identities. I had permission for it for my first book, but when the child [turned] 14 [she got] very self-conscious about the fact that her bathing suit is a little low in the picture. She declined to give permission for its publication, which really thunderstruck me because it's such a sweet picture. But that's who she is, so it won't be published, no question about it.
When I started doing my work years ago, I had doubts as to whether the informed-consent question was answerable. But empirically I've come to understand that my photographs really don't do any harm. And the way I found that out is by virtue of the fact that a huge number of people that I've photographed over the years have now come of age and are able to speak in adult voices about the process. What they're saying is unanimous – I don't have any dissenting voices — which is that they love the pictures. They're pleased that they exist, and they want me to photograph their kids.
Some of these people were bugged by the FBI in the worst imaginable way. They were interviewed very, very aggressively. Yet they're all still willing to let me take their pictures, and they think the FBI was completely full of it. One of the things that a lot of people don't understand is that 98 percent of the work that goes into making a picture has to do with the social work you do before a camera comes out. I spend a huge amount of time with the families that I photograph. Years ago, as a naive photographer, I'd see a pretty face and want to take a picture. Empirically, over a long period of time, I learned that pretty faces were just not enough, not even remotely enough. There has to be somebody home behind the pretty eyes, somebody with whom I would want to spend substantive amounts of time over a period of decades.
These days I very rarely approach new people. Mostly people come to me, or I'm photographing the friends of people that I've photographed. If I add anybody, it's part of a larger family network, as it were.
STEINBERG: Obviously your own pursuit of beauty has a lot to do with youth. What is it about young people that you find so beautiful?
STURGES: There's line, there's androgyny – a lot of different things. I've undone the psychological puzzle that is me, and it's not a very complex one. I was sent away to boarding schools when I was very, very young, and it wasn't a lot of fun. So I'm particularly fascinated by that age, the age of my own traumatization, as it were.
STEINBERG: I didn't mean the psychoanalysis of it. I meant, what is it about these people that really grabs you? You could be photographing 40-year-old people, or 70-year-old people . . .
STURGES: Well, beyond what I've just said, about what it was that lit the fuse on this work, I'm not really that worried about knowing.
STEINBERG: I don't mean what it is about you.
STURGES: I'm letting you know why it is I like what I like.
STEINBERG: But what is it you like?
STURGES: It's so different every time, because it evolves. I'm working with a lot of people now who are considerably older than I used to work with, because a lot of these kids have literally drawn me up through their lives. I've come to understand that they're even more interesting company and more interesting to photograph – they're more interestingly complex – when they're older, when they're in their early 20s and starting to get involved in relationships that may result in children.
When I enter a room, there's always a face or two that will stop me. Everything else is invisible to me; I don't see the other people that are there. There's a certain purity of line, and [someone] also who is at peace with herself, that is to say, unself-conscious and delighted to be the physical animal that he or she is.
STEINBERG: Ron Raffaelli, who has also done a lot of photography of young people, talks very explicitly about the innocent way of being in your body, before you associate it with sexuality and therefore with being “bad.”
STURGES: Lewis Carroll made a similar distinction. He thought that children were absolutely beautiful before puberty, but after, they were essentially lost, corrupted by the emergence of sexuality. I've never been able to identify with that perception, because to me the people are the same people. That child remains within. The innocence is there, it just takes on a different guise.
I can't begin to know the psychological ramifications of what I do in the long run. I won't live long enough. Some of the people that I photographed as sticks became much more voluptuous, much rounder, in some cases dramatically so, and I think they're even more beautiful. Some of them are in their 30s now and their bodies are beginning to obey gravity's halcyon call, and I think they're still more beautiful, because now they're the origins of other people, of children, themselves.
STEINBERG: Do you photograph pregnant women?
STURGES: I've done a little. I want to do more. I'm beginning to photograph the kids I've photographed as they become pregnant. One of the reasons I haven't [done] more is because it so awes me. The last thing I think about is taking a picture of it. It feels like walking in church with loud shoes, to take a camera into that place.
STEINBERG: Can you give a picture of how you work with people, your process? Are you directive?
STURGES: People do the most beautiful things imaginable, so the less I direct the better. For me an ideal shoot is with people I've worked with for a long time. We'll go to a beach or we'll go to a river and we'll spend days there. I interrupt nothing. If people want to go swim, they go swim. If their boyfriends want to be there, if they want to listen to the radio, whatever, I say nothing. I might change a little something, turn a head in a larger composition. Once in a while I'll say, “Don't move,” and I'll quickly take a picture. The best photographs always come that way. It's what's the least manipulated and owes the most, therefore, to what the people themselves have done. All the art in my work dwells in the subjects. It's not made up by me; I ain't that smart.