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Line of Beauty and Grace is a collection of individual interviews with photographer Jock Sturges, his wife Maia and her sister Vanessa. We also see Sturges working at his well known site Montalivet in France with his assistants on taking photographs, and him instructing them on how to work with models and set up the picture. There are some scenes of him playing with and photographing his two-year-old daughter. At the start and the end of the work, Sturges is shown at his German publisher Steidl, overseeing the production of his most recent book, a collection of color photographs. These different elements are tied together by shots of the sky, the sea, the beach, and woodland. The main documentary is about 56 minutes long, and then there are three sets of interviews on the DVD; first, Sturges talking about digital photography and its relation to old-fashioned film photography; second, Sturges commenting on other photographers and artists; and third, three theorists individually commenting on the value of Sturges' work.
The theme of the documentary is that Sturges is one of the few fine art photographers who makes beauty his main subject. Sturges himself talks a great deal about the relationship between himself and his model, and how important it is that he knows his model well. The fact that he has worked with many of the same models for decades now, and is even now at the stage of photographing the children of women who he originally photographed as children, is extremely important to him. He explains that when he does professional shoots with the most beautiful models in the world, whom he does not know and are not interesting in forming an emotional relationship with him, he feels that his photographs are far less interesting and he takes no pride in them. His heart is in his photographs of naturists, for which he feels greatest pride.
This documentary works well as a record of Sturges' approach to his work. The editing and production are quite rudimentary, and some of the editorial choices are a little odd. There's a surprising amount of commentary from his sister-in-law Vanessa, which while relatively articulate, is not that helpful. She is a charismatic presence on camera, especially with her accent of American with French inflexions, but she is no expert on Sturges' work. When she starts commenting on the difference between men and women and why Montalivet is a female place, it is hard to see why the directors included it in the film, although they do immediately follow it with Sturges himself talking about his feminine side and how he prefers femininity to masculinity. Then they have a minute showing large trucks moving sand around on the beach, which seems like some subtle comment that the viewer must struggle to interpret. There's also a great deal of time devoted to Sturges and his little girl, which may show how determined he is to integrate his photography with his relationships, but does not shed much light on his past work.
The two interviews with Sturges in the DVD extras are far more illuminating. The first, about 11 minutes long, has Sturges explaining how digital photography is technically superior to film, but that he still prefers old fashioned large format photography because the process of taking a photograph is so arduous that it forces him to pay more attention to each exposure, and it shows the model that he is taken her very seriously, and this changes the experience of interaction for both of them, and so affects the response of the model. The other interview with Sturges, about 21 minutes long, in which he discusses other photographers and artists, is equally revealing. He talks about Diane Arbus, Annie Liebovitz, Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky, Sally Mann, Robert Frank, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Emmet Gowin, Egon Schiele, and cave paintings. He says that painters are more influential on his work than other photographers. He explains why he thinks that conceptual photography nearly always fails and is not very interesting, yet why he likes the work of Jeff Wall, why Annie Liebovitz is a celebrity rather than a fine art photographer (and is horrible to her assistants), why he could never take the kind of attitude that Sally Mann does to her work, why Arbus's depictions of retarded people in her photography was profoundly unethical, and how Robert Frank's Americans was especially influential on his early work. It is a fascinating collection of comments, some of which are quite surprising -- especially his enthusiasm for the work of Clark and Goldin. The third DVD extra, interviews in German with Klaus Honnef, Bodo Niemann and Jean Christophe Ammann, are a little gushing and are not particularly informative. Ammann goes so far to say that critics of Sturges are just unable to bear the beauty of his work, which is particularly facile.
The obvious omission in the DVD is the viewpoint of his models (or at least models who are not also family members). Given that Sturges himself says so much about his relationship with his models and someone else comments that Jock gives so much of himself to his models that he is in danger of doing too much, one wonders whether his models share this perception. Further, given that Sturges condemns Diane Arbus for exploiting some of her subjects and not telling them about how widely seen their photographs would be, one wonders how much Sturges himself did to explain to his subjects that their images would be available in bookstores all over the world. Indeed, now their images are also widely available on the Internet. How do they feel about that, and how has it affected their lives? The documentary-makers do not explore this at all.
This omission, and the generally adoring tone of the work, make it clear that this is an unabashedly partisan work, from the point of view of enthusiasts, rather than a survey of different points of view. The strongest criticism of Sturges, voiced by Vanessa, is that his work is too saccharine because it is too beautiful, but then she at least half takes the criticism back. One might regret that the filmmakers do not do more to explore other viewpoints regarding Sturges, but their enthusiasm does seem to forge a relationship between them and Sturges, making him more open than one might expect in his interviews, and this makes the DVD memorable and useful.
Note: the DVD is manufactured in Europe but is Region 0, viewable on nearly all DVD players.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.