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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Jock Sturges


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The name of Jock Sturges will always be interlinked with accusations of child pornography. It’s impossible to discuss his photographic career without making mention of the 1990 FBI raid on his studio and the resulting criminal charge of child pornography, or without the 1998 child pornography indictments in Alabama and Tennessee against Barnes & Noble bookstores for selling copies of the books of Jock Sturges. Although the cases against Sturges were all eventually dismissed, they cost him over US$100,000 in legal fees…and by giving him so much publicity, they earned him millions in sales.

Jock Sturges makes portraits. They’re an odd combination of formality and informality. There is nothing ‘candid’ about his portraiture; the subjects are always aware of Sturges and is 8×10 view camera. Yet his subjects are so relaxed and comfortable with him…and with themselves…that the photographs have a simple, casual quality.

The accusations of child pornography grow out of the fact that many of his subjects are nude and some of them are adolescents. Sturges is obviously interested in the beauty of the nude body. Not just that of adolescents; he photographs adults and entire families as well. In fact, he has been photographing some of his subjects for more than twenty-five years. Sturges says, “I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual and psychological change.”

His tendency to focus on adolescents is, he says, a product of that fascination with change. Adolescence is a sort of awkward tipping point, balanced between the absolute innocence of childhood and the coming of adulthood. It’s a very temporary period, a period of rapid physical change, a period in which the individual is increasingly aware of those physical changes.
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Sturges often emphasizes the transient quality of the human body by photographing his subjects in timeless environments…broad expanses of beach with the vast ocean in the background, or undomesticated woodlands. There is an ambience of sweet sadness in many of the images.

Although the photographs themselves shock some people, many photographers are more shocked by the way Jock Sturges handles the images. He doesn’t have his subjects sign release forms; instead, he gives them absolute control over how the photo is used. Sturges says, “When I want to use a photograph, I contact each person, explain the context in which I wish to exhibit or publish the picture, and get permission for that specific purpose.” On occasion, his subjects have withdrawn their approval. “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.” Most of those individuals, he says, later changed their minds again.

That policy is only made possible by the fact that Sturges maintains contact with his subjects. As noted earlier, he has been returning to the same communities and photographing some of the same subjects for a quarter of a century.

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Although Sturges passionately defended himself against the accusations of child pornography, he found himself approaching his photography differently. Before, he photographed his subjects as they naturally behaved…and, as naturists used to being unclothed, they were utterly unselfconscious about how they stood or sat or bent over. After the indictments, Sturges’ wife noticed he began to give his subjects instructions…to cross legs, or turn a certain direction in order to avoid an angle that somebody might find suggestive. After the accusations, shame was introduced to his work. Sturges had to relearn to be as comfortable as his subjects.

What gets lost in all the fuss are the photographs themselves. There is a lyrical beauty to the images created by Sturges, a pristine delicacy that is deeply appealing. It’s especially apparent in his photos of adolescents. They have a natural sense of drama and theatricality, a growing awareness of themselves as individuals, and they try on poses and attitudes as easily as they might try on a hat.

When I first looked at the photography of Jock Sturges I was a tad uncomfortable. That discomfort, I’ve come to realize, had nothing to do with the photographs; it had to do with me.