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Jock Sturges at Kopekin Gallery, Peter Beard at Fahey Klein and John Dugdale at Steven  Cohen Gallery

Naked Girls

There is something benign and beautiful about a perfect March day in LA. If there is no smog, and the sun is just right, with a slight breeze, even the drive North on the freeway from Newport
Beach is pleasant, provided of course that one is on that freeway at the proper time which is anytime after 9 am and before 3 pm.  After that, driving  can become like entering another ring in
Danteís Inferno. But at the right time, at 65mph, across five, six, eight lanes, where the highway opens up, the sky can suddenly take your breath away - John Singer Sargent clouds against
abstract ultramarine blue and later the favorite Red Rover, Red Rover color, Sky Blue Pink. One begins to think of heaven - hardly ever associated with LA.

We found something of what appeared to be a little bit of heaven, albeit laced with a little bit of hell, in the work of Jock Sturges at  the Paul Kopeikin Gallery. Heaven is in the pictures, large
format images taken on sunlit beaches and sandy shores in the South of France, and in Ireland. The hell is in what Sturges has gone through to show them.

Sturges, whose work includes nude portraits of children and adolescents from "naturist" families in Europe and Northern California,  is once again much in the news. It is now a well known story. Eight years ago the FBI, without warrants, raided his San Francisco home and studio and confiscated camera equipment, much of his photographic output, business and personal papers, and his computer and files.  A local film developer had apparently reported him for possible child pornography. Years later only a portion of his possessions were returned and that was in damaged condition.  While a grand jury refused to charge him, Sturges has never been able to find out anything about the seizure, nor has he ever received an apology or compensation.

Recently a grand jury in Montgomery, Alabama indicted a Barnes & Noble book store on charges of disseminating "obscene material containing visual reproduction of persons under 17 years of age involved in obscene acts."  The material in question included among others, Sturges book Radiant Identities.

Of course there are perhaps some of you photographers out there who would give nothing short of your ten best Hasselblads for a little well publicized FBI raid on your studios, or to have a show closed, or even better, banned somewhere, by someone, anyone, but preferably a big high profile institution or organization. Letís face it, would half the world  know the name of Andres Serrano if it werenít for Jesse Helms?  Not a few photographers would get down on their knees in thanks to Helms were he to shine his highly profit inducing search light on their work.  That raid may have been a lot of trouble, expense, and general havoc for Sturges, and I have no doubt that it was, but careerwise he probably couldnít have made a better move. That said,  make no mistake, the attacks on Sturgesí work pose a very real threat to artistic freedom, and therefore to all freedom in this country.

Someone once said that "great" art, or at least the art that gets bought and sold, is 50% content and 50% publicity.  The former is tough to come by, but the latter in this day of  media overload and stiff competition for every 30 second sound bite gets damn hard to generate. Artists  have always pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable and what will provoke outrage, and it is getting harder and harder to find ways to do it.  The Cubists did it with breaking up the picture plane, the Fauvists with color, the Impressionists with shattering the image into a thousand pixels of light. Sex, while it is not new,  (surely sex, art, and outrage have a long glorious history)  is what seems to do the trick today.  (Blasphemy runs a strong second. ) But, if it is sex,  it had better be sex with a new angle. Witness Nan Goldenís ambiguous transsexuals, bisexuals, and homosexuals.  Mapplethorpeís homoerotic art worked a few years ago but we, and they, are past that now.  Today, nude, underage girls seem to be just the thing.

Who is the they, and why are they deciding what the rest of us can and cannot see? Why is it that the likes of  "Reverend" Doctor James Dobson of Wichita, Kansas (at his behest the police have seized Sturges and others books) canít decide not to open Sturges books or tell their children or wives or whomever they have personal control over, not to look?   Wouldnít we all prefer to chose for ourselves? Is there anyone out there who doesnít feel perfectly capable of doing just that?

There is another question to consider, and that is the one of harm. Harm, specifically  being done to those who are being portrayed.  And that, in my view is the larger question. Are the young
women, many just children, (almost entirely, but not without exception, female),  being harmed in some way by Sturgesí nude portrayal of them?  Does it harm a child to have nude photographs, sometimes with genitals exposed, exhibited to the world?  Why?  Whatís wrong with looking at these images? Isnít it another aspect of life - available for consideration, review, analysis, understanding and attention? (By responsible mature adults capable of thoughtful objectivity.)

Much hinges around notions about sex.  According to some,  children arenít supposed to have it or think about it and adults certainly arenít supposed to think about it in relation to children. And most importantly adults arenít supposed to act on thoughts about sex with regard to children if they do happen to have them. We know the reasons why. There is a power differential between adults and children. Children can never give truly informed consent.  At the same time they are in fact sexual beings, latent and not latent, conscious and unconscious, capable of powerful seductive drives. Their  vulnerability, nonetheless, adults are bound both by law and by honor to respect and protect  -  to in fact, stay away.

There is nothing, however,  that says that childhood sexuality should be denied or declared nonexistent.  The "problem" I believe with Sturges work is that it brings all these uneasy, complicated, difficult, subtle,  and not so subtle issues to the forefront, where, as we well know, much is in the eye of the beholder, and not a little in fertile imaginations. Terry Randall of Operation Rescue claims, "Pictures of nude children are used by child molesters to seduce their victims and get them to take off their clothes."

The publicity mill works both ways. Randall, whose organization has in the past initiated aggressive and sometimes violent attacks on family planning centers,  and whose supporters have
destroyed books in stores says, "We are playing hardball with these guys."  Sturges provides Randall (currently running for congress in New York State) with what Serrano provided Helms, an effective means to draw press, contributions, and followers.

For claims to the contrary, ( "... Sturgesí photographs have nothing to do with sexuality. Only with eroticism...." )  these photographs of children do bring the subject of sex to mind. (But not in a bad way let me quibble - except of course by bad people.)  And it is this eroticism that makes Sturgesís photographs so disturbing,  provocative and even beautiful.  They are in essence about the life force. Perhaps it is what makes them what we call "art," - good or bad art is another discussion. 

If I had a daughter, would I want her to be photographed full frontal nude by Sturges?  I think not. However beautiful, and despite the "innocence" of the pictures,  I would want to shelter my
daughterís budding sexuality from the gaze of the anonymous hordes, (or even some of my  friends)  who may or may not have "impure" thoughts.  I would like to allow my putative daughter the luxury of making up her own mind about the visual uses of her naked image when she had the maturity and consciousness for consent.  For similar reasons I am not comfortable with some of the nude images by Sally Mann of her young daughters, despite my admiration for her photographic achievements.

But I am also not a member of the "naturists" groups that Sturges befriended in Montalivet, France, people who according to Sturges are "either born into or delivered quickly to an enduring
acceptance of self and a virtual absence of shame....". (It should be noted that not all of the images are of nudes. Many of the young women wear bathing suits, towels, or summer clothes and some were of children in Ireland.)

I might, however, hire him to make a non-nude portraits of my daughter. (Provided I could afford  it, which given Sturgesínotoritety and success would today be unlikely.) To be photographed by Sturges is to somehow be made beautiful.  His photographs have the power to register and preserve  unchanged, moments so fleeting in the lives of growing children that as any parent knows, with a blink of an eye, they are gone.  Therein lies the magic. Sturges gives all of the families he photographs copies of the pictures he takes and they are quite happy to have them. He goes to great lengths to secure renewed permission each time an image is published.  Confident that his images do no harm,  he gives as evidence the fact that many of the people he has photographed have now grown up and can speak as adults about the process. He says, "...they love the pictures. Theyíre pleased that they exist, and they want me to photograph their kids."

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