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There’s a power to Sturges’ pictures that no other photographer of nude young women has matched. It’s not just that they are beautiful, although they are. Other photographers have made girls of such an age their subjects, and their results are less impressive. Maybe the central problem for these photographers is avoiding the exploitation of the children they show, and the greatest challenge they face is to not only acknowledge and express the beauty of their models but also to bring more into their images, saying something about beauty, contemporary society, sexuality, youth, or even love.
With the Internet, images of undressed young teen girls have become far more available than they were previously, whether through naturist sites, or more blatantly pornographic “Lolita” sites operating out of other countries. Clearly there is a market for such images. Even though this book by Sturges costs over $55 for 111 pages, it is regularly in the top 5000 books in Amazon.com selling-ratings, easily outselling for example the comparably priced Vanity Fair's Hollywood and even the considerably cheaper Venus: Masterpieces of Modern Erotic Photography and it seems to be one of the best-sellers in their “erotic photography” category. Yet this is a book featuring teenagers and even pre-adolescents. It seems that more people find young girls erotic than our society is generally willing to admit. For a photographer to refuse to address this aspect of his work, or for a reviewer to ignore it, would be irresponsible. Sturges is not simply a photographer producing work that addresses the issues of young female sexuality: he also makes money from his work, and it is obvious that many of the people who buy his books are interested in more than philosophical meditations on the nature of eroticism: they spend the money because they get off looking at these beautiful girls.
Two questions are especially important here: first, is Sturges an artist with something to say rather than a sleaze-merchant? Second, even if he is, what are we to make of the widespread use of such images for voyeurism and fetishistic pleasure in young girls?
Sturges, more than other well-known photographers of nude teenage girls, seems to have some insights in his pictures that go beyond trite ideas of the beauty of blossoming womanhood and the innocence of youth. One significant feature of this book is that each photograph is labeled with the names of the people in the picture, the place, and the year. These pictures were taken over a period of five years, and often the same girls appear in the pictures from different years, so one can see changes in their bodies and the way they look into the camera as they have aged. The subjects, mostly girls, are normally in small groups. The pictures are obviously posed, but there’s also spontaneity in the interaction between the people and in their reaction to the photographer. Sturges is clearly fascinated by how the girls change as they get older, and tries to capture this in his images. Most of the images were taken at the beach, with the sea in the background; nearly all of the pictures were taken outdoors. Apart from a small section of color photographs in the middle of the book, all the rest are in black and white, in soft tones, but without indulging in soft-focus romanticism. The pages are 12.5x14 inches, and this large format enhances the open-spaced feel of these images.
Sometimes the girls look directly at the camera, with a sense of curiosity and occasionally with a question or even suspicion in their eyes, although they obviously trust him enough to let him take these photographs, and Sturges often knows his subjects as friends. In others pictures, the girls look away, or at their companions. The pictures are stunningly beautiful, in their composition and production as well as subject matter. Furthermore, they are interesting: Sturges has enough variety in his style to avoid predictability or cliché. He comes perilously close to making tired statements about femininity and nature in some images, but his subjects have enough personality and character in their faces and posture to avoid this danger. Maybe too often Sturges lets the beauty of the girls carry the photograph, but the simplicity and openness of the style are undeniably effective, and it might be better to err in that direction rather than let his images become cluttered with ideas.
It has to be said that the picture of teenage life Sturges presents is an idealization: it contains almost nothing of modern society; almost no piercings, tatoos, cars, neon signs, name-brand clothes, radios, headphones, hand-held computer games, or anything else to tell you in which century the pictures were taken. The girls don’t wear make up and the clothes they wear are simple. Mostly they look happy or at least untroubled, even if there is an occasional tinge of melancholy to their faces. They don’t have any acne. So it’s clear that these subjects are utterly unrepresentative of teenage girls today, whose lives are so often full of pressure, tension, excitement, temptation and anxiety. These pictures were taken mostly in on the French coast or in Northern California: while these two locations are very different, they are both culturally firmly in the twentieth century, but there’s no identifying marks within the pictures to date them. Most of his subjects are from naturist families, so maybe they tend to prioritize a different way of life compared to most people, but nevertheless the girls probably do participate fully in modern life in similar ways to their peers, but we see nothing about that side of their lives. So his work can be seen as an escape or avoidance of reality, or it could be seen as a depiction of an aspect of girls that is not contaminated by modern society.
Which interpretation is right I think depends on judging the relevance of the social context in which these images are published. If one believes that art can be understood independent of social context, and that there is a sharp distinction between the intentions of the artist and the way the art is used by its viewers, then Sturges’ work can be seen as a simple depiction of timeless young female beauty and a meditation on adolescence. But reluctantly I have to say that such a belief is naïve. As I suggested above, and also set out in my review of Anjos Proibidos, girls today are hyper-sexualized and yet at the same time are seen as innocent and too young to be sexual. For an artist to depict teenage girls without addressing the highly charged social context of his work, and indeed for him to profit from this context, without addressing the way that his work will be taken is an evasion of responsibility.
That’s not to say that his work is pornography or that it should be censored: that would be absurdly puritan. Furthermore, it is setting very high standards to insist that artists face the social implications of their work. Some artists are less interested in and even less capable of understanding the social and political dimensions of their work. Art can be draining and can leave the artist no energy for peripheral considerations. Once one starts to get involved in the controversial debates, one may be drawn in even further, and giving one less time for one’s art. There’s a whole range of possible reasons why an artist might want to say “I do what I do, let others worry about the politics.” Sturges does address the issues in interviews (see some of the links below), and he is highly conscious of the problems inherent in his work. To wish that Sturges would address contemporary aspects of life for teenage girls in his art is really to wish him to be a different artist: it is central to his approach that modern society does not enter into his pictures in any essential way.
I have known some people who approach art with a hermeneutics of suspicion, and there’s plenty of good reason to do so. But living like that also tends to rob one of simple pleasures and aesthetic joy. Although one is inevitably conflicted when viewing these beautiful images, I have to say that ultimately I’m glad that Sturges has produced this work. But viewers have responsibilities too, and one has to be careful to not let this beauty tempt one into self-deception about the way these images are used and the realities of life faced by teenaged girls.
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© Christian Perring, 2001
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<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Daze Reader, with many links to Jock Sturges interviews and exhibitions, (some out of date).
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>David Steinberg interviews Jock Sturges, on Sexuality.org
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>A.M. Rousseau on Jock Sturges, John Dugdale and Peter Beard.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Statement on the Jock Sturges controversy by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, and Borders Books and Music. October 24, 1997
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>James R. Kincaid, Is this child pornography?, Salon, Jan. 31, 2000
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