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Jock Sturges' photographs of nudist girls are breathtakingly beautiful, and this beauty has overpowered potential reservations about the potential objectification and even exploitation of his subjects. This new book is a collection of photographs of one model, one of his best known, Misty Dawn. They are arranged in chronological order, from when she was four years old in 1983, to when she was in her late twenties, in 2007, with her husband and baby. Many of these images will be familiar to those who have seen Sturges' other books, but many are previously unpublished. The photographs are in black and white; most of the nearly 80 pictures were taken in Northern California, and a few were shot in Montalivet, France. They were taken in the same locations, naturist camps, as Sturges took his other best known pictures. She was on the cover of Radiant Identities, and if you do an Internet image search for Jock Sturges, an image of Misty Dawn will be one of the top results.
Part of the interest of this collection is simply to see how Misty Dawn changes as she gets older. She's a skinny blonde girl with intense eyes and good posture when she is little. Occasionally she seems a little awkward in a picture, but then in a page or two, from the same year, there will be one of her looking graceful and lovely. As she gets older, she shows the changes of puberty and adolescence, and by the time she is in her late teens, she is a beautiful woman. In the final photographs, the greatest change is in her face, which is not just a little rounder, but also shows signs of life's worries; she looks at the camera with a little distance and even a hint of suspicion. But looking back, we see that she never smiled, and she nearly always looked at the camera with her eyes narrowed, and that was part of her mystery and attraction. She was naked but a little surly, ready to strike a pose, aware of how she appeared to the camera, and quite proud. It's a reliably arresting stance, no matter what age she is in the photographs.
Nevertheless, there's a voyeuristic and even obsessive aspect to a whole book of mostly nude photographs of person. The issue isn't much to do with sex, although obviously Misty Dawn can be viewed sexually. Nor is it to do with exploitation: there's no reason to think that Sturges was taking advantage of Misty Dawn or any of his subjects. His first pictures of her appeared in 1991 and 1994, when she was in her early teens. The fact that Misty Dawn continued to pose for Sturges over the years is confirmation that she felt comfortable with the process, and the publication of the photographs of her.
When looking through Sturges' books with a wide variety of people shown, it is more clearly about beauty, the human body, youth, and nature. When every photograph in the book features Misty Dawn, the subject of the book is her. It puts the reader into a more personal relationship with her. We see that she liked dressing up when she was younger. In his introduction, Sturges writes that she was overshadowed by her siblings, and she enjoyed the attention of being photographed and she took to it naturally. That fact that she came from a nudist or naturist family in Northern California suggests that she is a little counter-cultural, and in some pictures she looks a bit hippie-like. In the final picture, we see her nude at the kitchen table holding hands with her (then) husband Wade, who looks like a regular guy in nondescript shirt, pants, socks and shoes. But if this is a book about Misty Dawn, it is a strange one, because she does not contribute any writing to it, and he tells us very little about it.
It turns out she has her own website, where she does write about herself. In a section called "Misty's Mourn" she writes
I had a decent childhood. As you know, I modeled from when I was just a child. I was married for some time and I got a job as a bartender in an Indian casino. In the course of my work, they had me lift full kegs of beer, weighing over 160 lbs. That's more than 25 lbs. more than I weigh. It caused me permanent back injury. I filed a claim with for Workers Comp, but because my job was on the reservation, the State laws do not cover injuries on "Sovereign Nation" territory, and the tribal insurance company rejected my claim. So, for the past three years, I have suffered with my back. The doctors said I have a degenerated disk. All I know is that it hurts all the time. I've had to sell a number of the original Jock Sturges photos of me I had earned through my modeling, just to pay for doctors and medicine and now that money is running out.
This reminds us that Misty Dawn is a real person, with her own story to tell, and that she hasn't really told it. Sturges' pictures of her are very beautiful, and they show her beauty. But to have a whole book of pictures of her without telling us more about her life is to present an idealization of her, a pleasant fantasy. Real life is not allowed to get in the way of the pictures. The subtitle of the book is "Portrait of a Muse," but as a portrait, it is extremely one dimensional. This raises the question of what Sturges is trying to accomplish in his work. If it is just presenting us with striking pictures of attractive nude young women set against a backdrop of nature, he is very successful. However, if he is trying to do more, and tell us something about life, and people, then his work is far more limited in its success. The comparison with the work of French photographer David Hamilton is helpful here: Hamilton is very clearly presenting us with a romantic fantasy of young women, packaged with all sorts of problematic assumptions about femininity and innocence, and erotically charged in ways that may make some viewers uncomfortable. Sturges' work is obviously different: the indifferent and sometimes tom-boyish images Misty Dawn do not fit so well into such categories, and they do not fall into rather obvious visual cliché, as much of Hamilton's work does. Sturges' images are far more visually interesting and unconventional. Yet it seems that he has a Big Theme he wants to illustrate, a vision as striking as that of Ansel Adams, and an aim to capture some transcendental quality of youth and beauty in nature.
Assessing Sturges' work here is not really about his technical success, since there's little doubt he is enormously talented and has made many stunning images. Rather, it's about whether we can buy into his vision, and escape from the gritty details of reality. Of course we don't want all photographers to be documentarians of human misery, and Sturges' vision is certainly inspirational, as religious images can be. Maybe he has to present a pure, one dimensional view in order to keep his work as inspirational as it is. If he showed us Misty Dawn watching TV, eating her food, or yelling at her mom, we wouldn't look at these other pictures in the same way. Yet there is a cost to be paid for his approach. Sturges' vision isn't obviously an illusion, in the way that Hamilton's is, but I still find it troubling when it is presented as a portrait of an actual person. It would have been richer if it had presented a deeper and more balanced representation of her life. As it is, it feels less visionary and more like a distortion of reality.
· Portfolio of Work by Jock Sturges
· Review of New Work 1996-2000
· Review of Notes
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.