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Naked Truth

[whitespace] Jock Sturges photo Body and Soul: Some of the subjects in Jock Sturges' controversial book 'Radiant Identities' are naturists photographed in Northern California and on the beaches of Montalivet, France.

Photo reprinted courtesy Jock Sturges



Bay Area photographer Jock Sturges talks back to the Southern judges, the FBI and the right-wing Christians who would like to ban his work

By David Steinberg

Alabama and Tennessee grand juries recently indicted the nation's largest bookseller, Barnes & Noble, on child-pornography charges involving the sale of books by noted photographers whose work includes pictures of nude children. Among those artists is Bay Area photographer Jock Sturges, whose 10-year-old book, Radiant Identities, contains nude portraiture of children and adolescents.

For Sturges, these changes are part of the continuing saga of legal challenges and controversy surrounding his work. On April 25, 1990, FBI agents and San Francisco police officers raided his studio, seizing his cameras, his prints, his computer--everything relating to his occupation as an internationally recognized fine-art photographer. Art communities, both in San Francisco and nationally, rallied around Sturges, his work and the legitimacy of respectful nude photography of children and adolescents. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors denounced the raid and a San Francisco grand jury refused to indict Sturges on any charges.

Supporters of Randall Terry and his organization, Operation Rescue--best known for their protests against abortion clinics--take credit for bringing the books to the attention of prosecutors by such actions as physically destroying books in Barnes & Noble stores. The recent indictment in Alabama describes the work of Sturges and British photographer David Hamilton as "obscene material containing visual reproduction of persons under 17 years of age involved in obscene acts."

To this Sturges responds: "This is pretty chilling language because, in fact, the people in my pictures are not engaged in any acts at all. They are living in contexts that are naturist, which is to say that when it's warm and people feel like it, they don't wear clothes.

"It's laughable, and we'll win these cases, however far it has to go," Sturges continues. "If it gets to the Supreme Court, I'll have the directors of every museum in the country as expert testimony that my work is legitimate art. If obscenity is simply a matter of somebody being without clothes, then there are so many other things that would be inherently obscene--medical books, the National Geographic.

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

The following interview was conducted with Sturges in his San Francisco home by writer David Steinberg, who writes frequently about the culture and politics of sex.

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Corporate Barnes & Noble stands firm,
but local outlets silenced by indictments.

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Metro: How is the legal situation that you are facing affecting you and your work right now?

Sturges: The problem with being investigated as invasively as I was is that you run the risk of having that episode be the defining event in your life, and I have no desire to be defined by such assholes, period. What I'm good at is making art. I became good at defending myself, but as far as I was concerned, that was a transient skill. It was an occasion I had to rise to. I'd rather get back to making art than talk about it. It's no small irony that the government inevitably and invariably ends up promoting precisely that which they would most like to repress.

Metro: 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 is that simply because people are more aware of the work, and like it, having become aware of it? I don't know. I'll never get to know.

It's really, really hard to make it as a fine-art photographer exclusively. Now that I am, I'm permanently deprived of the pleasure of knowing whether that's based entirely on my work's merit or whether that's based on amplitudes lent by notoriety. That's something that's been stolen from me that I don't get back.

I've been taken to task by some critics for exploiting the whole situation. Those same critics never think to mention that it was something I would never have chosen to have happen to me.

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. That was just a choice that they had made, and one they didn't even think about; they were simply more comfortable that way. It never occurred to me that anybody could find anything about that perverse. It was a total surprise to me, which is obviously evidence of my having been pretty profoundly naive about the American context. But over the course of my life I've spent so much time in this context that I'd forgotten that Homo sapiens isn't always like that, which is indeed naive of me. I'm guilty of extraordinary naiveté, I suppose. But it's a naiveté that I really don't want to abandon, not even now.

Metro: Having been through all that you've been through, I can't imagine how you can take photographs now without having legal concerns 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 unself-conscious about how they sit around, how they throw themselves down on the ground, how they sit in a chair, how they stand. They don't think about it; it's not an issue. There's nothing obscene about them. Before, I'd photograph anything. I didn't think there was anything more or less obscene about any part of the body. Now, I recognize that there are certain postures and angles that make people see red, which are evidence of original sin or something, and I avoid that. I don't shoot that any more. But it's difficult. At one point, [my wife] Maia found me crossing legs, or avoiding angles, or giving instructions which inadvertently were instructing young people that some aspect of what they were doing was inherently profane, some aspect of who they were inherently were profane. I've had to relearn how I work with people so that if and when I do avoid different things I don't send any messages in doing so. I'm the last person who has any desire to instruct anybody in shame. That's no errand for me.

Metro: The semantics are tricky here, but I'm interested in whether you see your work as erotic. I don't mean erotic as sexual and I don't mean erotic as intending that people who look at your photos become aroused. But certainly, when I look at many of your photos, when I look at many of Sally Mann's photos, what I see is the natural eroticism of children, or preteens, or teens. Now I don't want to grab that and use it for adult sexual purposes, but I don't want to deny that this is often what that age is about.

Jock Sturges
Christopher Gardner

Prints of Peace: Photographer Jock Sturges says because of the FBI raids and the recent indicments, "There are photographs that I don't take now that I previously would have."

Sturges: Western civilization insists on these concrete demarcations. Before 18, physically you don't exist; after 18, you exist like crazy.

Metro: Sexually.

Sturges: Sexually. Before 18, nobody has anything in their pants; after 18, they have everything in their pants. It's ridiculous. The truth is that from birth on we are, to one extent or another, a fairly sensual species. There isn't a person alive who doesn't like being caressed. Children masturbate as early as 1 1/2 or 1 year old. They do it spontaneously and without any thought that there's anything evil about making themselves feel good. That's a sensual experience in their lives, one that should remain entirely the property of the child, as it were. Nobody is going to argue, last of all myself, that it should become involved to any extent in any adult experience of sexuality. But the truth is that Homo sapiens is a sensual species. I think all species are, to one degree or another.

Very naturally, the ages of consent in Europe are vastly lower 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 deal with them better about it, so that they'll talk to you and you can educate them.

We're really blind in this country. People don't see the extraordinary inconsistencies. I think the average age for the loss of virginity for female children in this country now is like 14 1/2 or 15. There's this vast epidemic of unwed mothers and teenage mothers, and yet we have an 18-year-old age of consent which makes them all felons. If the age of consent were lower, and you could talk to these children intelligently and not have to worry about school boards and PTAs going apoplectic if you mention the word condom, let alone sex and making people intelligent about it, probably we'd have a whole lot more intelligent take on the whole thing. As soon as you forbid something, you make it extraordinarily appealing. You also bring shame in as a phenomenon.

In our society there's so much shame attached to sexuality in a lot of social milieus that sexual abusers here on the average have had something like 70 or 100 victims before they're finally caught. In Holland where the age of sexual consent is, I think, 13, the average is vastly lower--it's like three or four. That's because people tell much sooner, because shame is absent.

So when moral crusaders raise 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.

Metro: Focus a little on how that affects how you see your work. Isn't what you're calling the sensuality of children or pubescent teenagers a major part of what you go for, of what makes a photo of yours work?

Jock Sturges photo
Photo reprinted courtesy Jock Sturges

Alisa and Christina: A 1991 portrait by Jock Sturges.

Sturges: I'm an artist that's attracted to a specific way of seeing and a way of being. Any artist that's involved in their work is inevitably going to have a focus in what they do. 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. I just yesterday returned from a trip where 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 turning into 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 they are about the evolution of the body, more than they're about 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 from the very youngest photographs you can see. 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. That's of no interest to people who make pinup photography. They don't care who the woman is, what tragedies or triumphs that person's life might encompass. That's of absolutely no relevance.

My work hopefully works exactly counter to that. That's my ambition: that you look at the pictures and realize what complex, fascinating, interesting people every single one of my subjects is. They're all different. I don't photograph any two people who are remotely the same.

Metro: Are you surprised when people find your photos erotic?

Sturges: No. Not at all.

Metro: It seems to me that you go out of your way to deny that they're erotic, to disassociate from collections of photos that are erotic. I understand that politically you're in a tricky position.

Sturges: Let me make an important distinction here. I will always admit immediately to what's obvious, which is that Homo sapiens is inherently erotic or inherently sensual from birth. But, by the same token, that remains the property of the individual in question up until the point where they become sexually of age, as it were, and it's arguable as to what that age is. If I said for attribution that it was before 18 years old, I'd be hung, drawn, quartered, the whole thing, in American society. In Europe it would raise no eyebrows at all.

But there's something else that functions. 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.

One of the fun things, or fascinating things, for me has been to look at who the accusers are, because invariably, when somebody becomes interested in your sexuality, in your moral life, what they're very often manifesting is an attempt to disguise from others, and perhaps even in many cases from themselves, disrepair in their own personal sexual life or morality. It's what I call the trembling finger syndrome. If somebody's pointing a trembling finger at your pants and saying you shouldn't be doing that, follow that finger back, go up the arm and look at the head that's behind it, because there's almost always something fairly woolly in there.

Metro: Let me ask you this: How do you work with models, particularly young models, in a way that does not appropriate their sexuality, their eroticism, their sensuality, for adult purposes?

Sturges: There's two levels. 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.

Metro: 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. With some kids, it isn't necessary anymore because we know each other so well. It's just not a problem.

Metro: Do they like posing?

Sturges: They adore it. Are you kidding?

Metro: 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 media stars are becoming more and more powerful, and as they are increasingly powerful, we are increasingly ciphers. The distance between their lives and our lives is growing all the time. Children feel absolutely invisible in this, unnoticed, and as if they can make no difference. The world is shrinking as we see more and more of it in the media, and the more we see of the world, the smaller we are, the more aware we are of how insignificant any one of us is.

Jock Sturges photo Bodies of Evidence: After his photographs of naked adolescents were confiscated by the U.S. government, Sturges says the FBI went on to harass his models in 'the worst imaginable way.'

Photo reprinted courtesy Jock Sturges



Kids feel this, even if they can't articulate it in quite that way. 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.

So the kids really enjoy the process. It's a collaborative process, very much so.

Now, on the second level, there's what happens after the photographs are made. But I no longer control that. It's not at all hard for me to imagine that there are some aspects of society that will buy my book, buy my photographs, who will look at them and have 'impure thoughts.' There are also people out there who buy shoe ads and Saran Wrap and all manner of things, who 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.

What pedophiles and people who have sexual desires on children lose sight of to a terrible, terrible degree--a devastating degree--is that their victims are real people who will suffer forever whatever abuses are perpetrated on them. If I'm able to make pictures of children that are so real, as you follow the children over the years in any given book, and in subsequent books they get older and older and grow up, perhaps there might be something cautionary in that visual example, because the truth is that every pedophile's victims eventually grow up and become adults who are willing to turn around, and that's when they get caught. Every child is going to grow up. You can see it happen in the books: They get older and older and belong to themselves to a greater and greater extent.

That dichotomy between the public consumption of the work and my intent and practice in making it is an uneasy one for me, on occasion.

Metro: How does that work for the models? I know that you give them ongoing control over their images.

Sturges: Right. They control their photographs because I don't let them sign model releases. I urge them never to sign a model release for anybody unless they have been paid specifically to do a specific job on a contractual basis, for an advertising agency or something. Who knows how they're going to change? I don't want to ever be guilty of making assumptions about those changes. They might marry a Methodist minister from Minnesota and have a very conservative life. It's not inconceivable that at some point in the future they might decide that these pictures embarrass them. That's never happened to me, but the control, the power to decide whether that happens or not, shouldn't be mine--it should be the kids', and that's where it stays. It creates a very complex life for me, I promise you. When I want to use a picture in a book, I have got to call foreign countries, find people, explain the context. My phone bills are astronomical sometimes.

Metro: Have you ever had people who have 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 these pictures published right now," and they were immediately pulled. I took them out of the galleries. They completely ceased to exist as far as the public perception of the images went. But when the kids were finished with high school they said, "Don't worry about that; I just went through a stage, and it's fine now."

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 really pleased that they exist, and they want me to photograph their kids. If these people had felt the least bit victimized by what I was up to they wouldn't be having me do the same thing to their own kids. I think it's just wonderful that they're so generous. I feel so lucky to know them.

Some of these people were bugged by the FBI in the worst imaginable way. They were interviewed very, very aggressively. They're all still willing to let me take their pictures; they think the FBI was completely full of it.

Metro: Another photographer I know who has worked with teenagers and young women says that sometimes he's concerned that he may be leading these people in a difficult direction because they get so much into how they look that then they get into the whole glamour/model thing.

Sturges: I've only once had a model go in that direction, and she was on her way there before I met her. A remarkably narcissistic human being. The principal way that I work is that I tell people not to move when they're doing something that I like. It's almost always something relatively improbable, which is to say, not a glamour pose, not the arms behind the head, not that kind of thing. The message is that who you are naturally is what I like the best. Virtually always I get my best pictures when everybody thinks the shoot's done. I'll go to do a shoot, I'll spend five or six hours at the beach with people, and when people think I'm all out of film, then they really relax and I get my good pictures. Hopefully the message is that you don't have to pose and put on makeup and be glamorous to be admirable. You're most admirable when you're the most human. I hope that's the message that my work delivers.

No two people take on the information of being admirable and being admired in the same way. I can't begin to know the psychological ramifications of what I do in the long run. I don't live long enough. It may be that the most important ramifications of what I do will come on my models in their 60s and 70s, when they look very different than they do in the pictures now, and when they will have the photographs as a reminder. It may be that reminder is painful. I hope not. I hope that they can continue to accept themselves and their bodies as they change and grow, as continuously beautiful. I can't answer that question with any kind of certainty; I just don't get to know.

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. That beauty is flowing back into their own children. To me that illuminates them and it illuminates the children as well. It's just all part of the same circle.

Physical beauty is such a strange thing. Homo sapiens happens to think that certain things are beautiful. Different members of different cultures will think that some things are beautiful. The Japanese used to paint their teeth black. There's no end to the variations on what it is we find aesthetically appealing, and there never will be any end to it. But the truth is that the fact that we have an aesthetic sense is part of what separates us out from the lower animals. There's no particular evidence that any of the lower mammals or any of the other animals have any interest in aesthetics at all. But Homo sapiens does, always has and always will.

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From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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