This guest post is written by Elizabeth Fleming.
Last month I had the pleasure of joining friend and fellow photographer Jonathan Blaustein on a tour of the Chelsea gallery scene as he conducted research for an APE article, which can be read in its entirety (here). We decided to stop by Aperture and wandered into their back room where, tucked into what was essentially a chink in the wall, several photographs by the controversial Jock Sturges were on display. Before I had my own children I never cared much about him one way or the other, but now his images struck me as distressingly sexualized and, frankly, unsettling. Jonathan puts it best in his piece when he says that: “even in a world of moral relativity, these images transgressed some basic taboo.”
I didn’t trust the work at face value, and I wanted to examine why: I began thinking in particular about the delicate relationship between creator and subject when a certain intimacy is involved; the questions brought about by the dissemination of such work in the internet age; and the fact that Sturges’ models are almost uniformly beautiful, raising issues about preoccupations with appearance. I soon discovered that my uneasy feelings were not groundless: I found Sturges to be strangely silent on the topic of how he feels his work functions in a contemporary setting, and I learned that he had at one point had an affair with an underage girl, making the question of age and beauty that much more suspect.
So with all that in mind I’ll throw out the following question: is it fair to expect any artist to recontextualize his or her work if the original frames of reference have changed due to technological advances and/or societal shifts? Is it fair to take into account an artist’s persona in general and, if there is a model involved, the specificities of the artist/subject relationship? Certainly images must first be viewed on their own merit, but after we have detached ourselves from preconceived notions about the meaning of the work based on the fame or notoriety (or lack thereof) of the maker and the particulars of place and time in which the work was made, there is always an underlying context. Ultimately art does not exist in a vacuum, otherwise typing “Shakespeare biography” into the search bar on Amazon would not return thousands of results.
Sturges is a photographer who is nothing if not notorious. Rather than join the already beaten-to-death dispute over whether his work is art or pornography or neither, I’ll try my best to stick to the issues noted above and ask again, as it pertains to Sturges individually, whether it matters that when he began exhibiting in the early 1990s, his pictures of preadolescent and teenaged girls would almost exclusively be seen by a selective crowd. Those who wished to view his images had to seek out gallery exhibitions or purchase one of his books or prints, which created a controlled system of distribution. Today things are very different, as we all know—any image that is put online will be around the world and back in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
According to Sturges, the dignity of his models is his highest priority, and part of his way of preventing them from potentially feeling debased has been to give them final say over where their likenesses will end up, ad infinitum. In a 1994 interview he stated: “It’s not inconceivable that at some point in the future [the models] might decide that these pictures embarrass them; 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.”
That is all well and good, but the establishment of the internet has fundamentally changed the conversation. The discussions we are having in 2010 are not the same ones we were having in 1994, and the idea of jurisdiction over one’s likeness is now a fallacy. (Quick note: Aperture itself does not show the photographs I saw in its gallery online, requiring any interested party to email them directly, but a quick internet search easily found pictures of the girl shown in the images elsewhere.) If a child grows up and decides she is uncomfortable with naked photographs of herself being shown it is already too late—her request exists in an entirely different world. If Sturges’ definition of dignity is synonymous with control, then dignity is stripped every time that girl’s image is propagated on websites far and wide, and once out there, there’s no taking it back. Despite much searching, I couldn’t find any reference by Sturges himself to a change of attitude in how he views the circulation of his images in the 21st century versus the 20th.
Then there is the question of recontextualization. While search returns for Sturges mostly directed me to fine art websites, inevitably there was some usage on erotica blogs and alongside pop-up ads for teen chat rooms and the like; a handful had once been displayed on actual pornography sites but had since been removed. Whether due to copyright infringement or because Sturges is being careful to try to keep his images out of such places is unclear, but this detail is at least heartening. Still, I would surmise that there are doubtless more than a few instances of his work appearing uncredited on pornography sites, particularly since, chillingly, they would be categorized as pedophilia which—being illegal—is underground. Should Sturges be concerned about this? I believe so, or I believe he should at least engage in a dialog about all of the facets of internet use. And yet he seems determined to stick firmly to platitudes about nudists’ lack of shame, about people’s general prudishness, and about how, while there may be some who will look at his work and have “impure thoughts” (his term), there are also people out there who, quote, “buy shoe ads, Saran Wrap, and all manner of things who have impure thoughts. I can’t really do anything about those people.”
What he fails to address is the fact that shame or not, “impure thoughts” or not, any young model Sturges photographs should be aware of where her likeness might end up. There is a difference between someone looking at a picture in a “neutral” environment versus on a site amidst images whose sole purpose is to arouse. Whether the responsibility ultimately falls firmly on the shoulders of an offending viewer is somewhat beside the point—yes, one can’t control every off-the-books (mis)use of one’s images, but in Sturges’ case it’s inescapable that the scope of the misuse is potentially wide. I can’t help but wonder if a 10 or 11-year-old girl, no matter how emotionally mature, can fully grasp all of the issues involved.
Interestingly, in 2006 Sturges became a member of the site photo.net and soon after was (in my opinion, respectfully) asked by the administrator to remove images of anyone under 18. Here is his response: “Well, I will pack up and go. I am an all-or-nothing sort as I never censor my work in any part myself nor condone others doing so on my behalf. Your rules are what they are I suppose. I was naive in imaging [sic] that my work which is published and available world wide would not be problematic in your forum. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it would be. Silly of me. I leave with regret because I love writing about photography…So it goes.” When some commenters then raised the issue of context he never responded.
More than once Sturges refers to the naïveté expressed above—here is another quote from his 1994 interview: “I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual and psychological change, and there’s an erotic aspect to that…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.” He truly seems not to have abandoned said naïveté, given that 16 years after the previous paragraph was spoken he was on photo.net stating anew that it had never occurred to him that his images might be deemed problematic. Again, I am not speaking about people placing their own analyses onto his pictures, but rather am attempting to draw attention to Sturges’ personal reaction to the questions surrounding his work.
In my opinion it feels somewhat disingenuous for Sturges to cite his astonishment over the reception of his photographs in light of his own past predilections, which brings me around to the tricky matter of whether an artist’s history and persona should have any bearing on the interpretation of his or her work. In 1998 it was revealed—through the release of a semi-autobiographical film by a woman named Jennifer Montgomery called “Art for Teachers of Children”—that she and Sturges had had an affair when she was 14 and he was 28. Admittedly, we can dig through practically anyone’s past and turn up plenty of dirty laundry, but Sturges’ liaison with a minor applies so specifically to the nucleus of his continuing thematic motifs that for him to claim he is surprised when people view the children in his images through a primarily sexual lens seems suspect. I believe it is pertinent to mention that his current wife was also once one of his models, whom he began photographing when she was 11.
If we wish to hear Sturges defend his actions regarding his relationship with Montgomery there’s not much to go on—the only reference I could find was the following, from a 1998 LA Times article: “I’m not a philanderer. I’ve had four relationships in my life. That’s it. Period. She was the second. And it was at a point in time when I was getting divorced from my wife. I was vulnerable and making bad decisions. That’s obviously embarrassing now, but in light of my regard for her intelligence and the stature of her intellect—I’m human.” I would say that whether he’s had four relationships or forty is beside the point, the fundamental issue being Montgomery’s age at the time of the affair. Regardless, gleaning solid factual information via the internet is admittedly risky business (I can practically hear the stampeding horses of angry commenters approaching) so I won’t claim to know for certain what did or did not happen and instead say this: in the many hours spent researching this article and mulling over Sturges’ words I have come away with the overall impression that he does not fully address the scope and breadth of the origins of, and reaction to, his work.
In particular, he fails to acknowledge that the societal structures that exist alongside his imagery might be something other than simply “repressive” or overly politically correct. Putting the blame back onto society is an easy way out, akin to ending a heated argument with a defiant “it’s a free country.” Tellingly, his exchanges about certain issues—such as Puritanical attitudes, American prudishness, and how the people pointing fingers should look back at themselves—are vehement and precise, e.g., “if you read sexuality into my pictures, beyond what’s inherent to a human being, then the work is acting as a Rorschach, and you’re evincing sexual immaturity or sexual malaise in your own life. I have to tell you, I am sometimes deeply suspicious of the sexual mental health of some of the people who point their wavering fingers at the morality, the art, of others.”
In contrast, his opinions about other areas just mentioned (the internet, his sexual past, the fact that not all of clothed society is necessarily inhibited) are generalized or nonexistent. In examining the following quote, which is the closest he really comes to delving into the controversy, I find him to be rather vague: “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’ve 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.” I’m sure given how often he has had to defend his methods over the years he is loath to delve too deeply into multilayered philosophical discussions about his themes, but if he wants to rail against the established system, he must also take into account all facets of that system without for the most part dismissing it outright or accusing his viewers of sexual immaturity when they dare question his work.
The last thing I’d like to touch on is the concept of beauty and its depiction. It practically goes without saying that talk of beauty and its ilk arises again and again in Sturges’ discussions regarding what draws him to the girls in question. He says he hopes not only to celebrate their beauty but also their individuality, pictorially showing his sense of connection to his subjects, and that he wants his models to be fully themselves, which means he doesn’t ask them to “pose” per se. Personally, I feel once again that there is a gap between what Sturges claims he is attempting to reveal in his work and the actuality of his work. He says wants people to look at his 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” yet for me the uniformity of the girls’ faces—the direct stares, the neutrality of expression—and the fact that they satisfy widely accepted notions of what constitutes attractiveness ends up making them all run together in my mind.
While Sturges does address that having worked with classically trained dancers is likely where he developed his “appetite for the slender, athletic line” that you often see in his work, he still emphasizes that ultimately he must have deep personal bonds with his subjects. Further still, he expresses happiness at being able, he believes, to help girls who do not feel pretty realize that they are. Sturges tells a lengthy story about a girl named Nicole (in the image to the right) who was embarrassed by her extreme height and long limbs; after being photographed extensively one afternoon, Nicole’s father told Sturges that she “just for the first time in her life told me that she thinks she’s pretty.” Sturges then elaborates: “That afternoon, for her, was what the French call a date changé. It was a changing point for her. Her sense of self and self-esteem changed dramatically that afternoon, and I felt absolutely ecstatic to have been part of that.” I would argue that this feat might be easier overall when the girl is for the most part conventionally beautiful.
Which begs the question, if beauty is not just skin deep, then why is there never a truly awkward child in any of Sturges’ pictures, one who does not fit into more mainstream ideals of attractiveness—a full-figured girl say, or one with ample armpit hair or some scars? Sturges claims he would never want to photograph someone whose personality he didn’t like—if so then I’m fairly impressed that these girls, chosen for both their physical beauty and the depth of their character, never at any point in their development got a pimple. As a side note, a beautiful girl—due to cultural depictions of desire—more likely than not will be surveyed through a seductive lens.
More revealing still is that in the two images I could find of heavier subjects—both grown adults—one is shown fully clothed, while the other is seen from a distance as part of a group that includes lithe young girls as well as men. If anyone finds more than a few isolated examples that contradict my findings, send them my way and I’ll revise my criticism. As for now, in an internet soup full of Sturges’ pictures, those two were all I turned up. (His books may show a different story, but for the sake of argument I’m going to stick to what is readily available, taking it as the most accurate reflection of the bulk of his work.) And for all of his talk about the individual shining through (thoughts on “attractiveness” aside) the I’m-so-perfectly-lying-on-a-log, somewhat stilted sensibility in his images belies his claim that he does not pose his models, which is a topic for another day.
In the end Sturges’ reticence regarding fundamental issues raised by his imagery calls into question his proclamations that he is simply celebrating the human body in its intended state. Further, his insistence that American society’s discomfort with children’s sensuality is a projection of their own learned shame ultimately strikes me as a smokescreen. If anything, his own silence on certain matters within a public forum displays the same proclivity for hiding that he so condemns. And wherever the locus of my own discomfort when viewing his pictures lies may ultimately be beside the point—not everyone will know the back-story to the work, so the issue has shifted from one of viewer reaction to that of distribution. There may be no changing the context of where his photographs are seen, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still discuss whether they should have even been there in the first place.
Elizabeth Fleming is a photographer and mother of two young daughters.