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Girls on Film

Beached: Sturges' "Fami's Schulte und Gillersen am strand; Montalivet, France" 1991

Nothing nudges common sense out of any fruitful discourse quite like nudity. Ever since Homo sapiens began covering their bodies with "clothing," from animal hides to Anna Sui, the necessity has arisen at some point or another to toss it off. The reaction to the absence of clothing, however, has changed. Even so, self-consciousness and/or modesty creep up every time nakedness is involved. It's enough to make you wonder: Which came first--the harlot or the hang-ups?

The black-and-white photographs by Jock Sturges on view at Photographs Do Not Bend, the first exhibition of Sturges' work in the area, add an interesting wrinkle to the debates that entwine pornography, erotica, and freedom of speech, and it's more than simply an artist trying to hide his kinky streak behind the First Amendment. These 28 photographs feature women of different ages on the beach or around the house in various states of undress. Some, admittedly, exhibit subtle sexual undertones, such as the defiant, confident young woman in "Fanny; Montalivet, France" (1997) who stares directly at the camera in front of a bed on which two other nude, young women recline. It's a feeling heightened by the manner in which Fanny is photographed: She's in sharp focus in the foreground, while the young women on the bed are blurred, making their relationship to Fanny ambiguous. Others couldn't be more innocuous, such as "Maia et Katherine; Montalivet, France" (1992), which features a group of women lounging on the beach.

Such different reactions put Sturges in the center of a fracas in 1998 when Barnes & Noble Booksellers came under attack for carrying his book Radiant Identities, which contains nude images of girls under 18. People objected to the imagery in many American cities--including New York; Denver; Williamson County, Tennessee; Kansas City; Wichita, Kansas; Nashua, New Hampshire; Lincoln, Nebraska; Rockford, Illinois; Bethel Park, Pennsylvania; Metairie, Louisiana; and, yes, Dallas--and not only protested in front of bookstores but also, in some instances, attempted to destroy the books. These objections were nothing new to Sturges. In 1990, FBI agents and police officers entered his San Francisco studio and confiscated his tools: cameras, prints, negatives, etc., though a grand jury declined to indict him on child-pornography charges.

This tug of war pitting artistic license against social mores has been waged before. Its media melting point was 1990, when the director of the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati, Dennis Barrie, faced obscenity charges for exhibiting the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective The Perfect Moment. The war between art and society reached an earlier critical juncture when, in the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan tried to abolish the National Endowment of the Arts, and Sens. Jesse Helms and Alphonse D'Amato attacked it for funding art that the Christian right considered "anti-Christian bigotry." (The phrase comes from Donald Wildmon's 1989 denunciation of Andres Serrano's infamous "Piss Christ.") Many artists had to fight for their right to create.

Along the way, something strange happened. The definition of obscenity grew more nebulous. When New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to shut down the Brooklyn Museum of Art's Sensations exhibition in 1999, the source of outrage was a bit different from Mapplethorpe's homoerotic, S&M imagery. People objected to artworks such as Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary," which depicts the Madonna with African features and includes elephant dung as a medium. In the case of Sensations, offensiveness was tied to subject matter and imagery but also to how the works were perceived. It conjured memories of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's infamous statement that he doesn't know how to define pornography, but he knows it when he sees it. That subjectivity points out censorship's conundrum: Pornography is difficult to define explicitly. It's something far more dangerous and elusive: a concept.

What makes Sturges' photographs so volatile to certain Christian coalitions and moral majorities is not so much his models' ages nor their lack of clothing nor the "acts" in which they're involved, but the very matter-of-factness with which they accept their nudity. In vulgar terms, they flaunt it. Sturges' models--"subjects" would be a more accurate term--are people with whom he's developed relationships: naturists in Northern California and recurring visitors to the nude beaches of Montalivet, France. They're people for whom "clothing optional" is not a punch line but a fact of life. To these women, be they prepubescent, adolescent, or mature, the decision to clothe or not to clothe is a matter of choice. And in our time of realizing that democracy is an ongoing experiment, choice can be a powder keg of contention. Just ask the American electorate.

Nudity is simply not an issue here, and many people may be taking issue with that. It's an attitude the photographs acknowledge. In "Misty Dawn, Northern California" (2000), a young, long-limbed blonde leans against a railing on a porch wearing nothing but a towel around her neck. She stares directly at the camera, with neither a coy nor come-hither fire in her eye; she may as well be watching the evening news. At her feet, two large dogs sleep, oblivious to the proceedings. Neither is concerned with her lack of clothing.

If that image has an erotic element to it, it is provided entirely by the viewer. Obviously, Western art has always used the female form sexually. That idea found its best explication in Laura Mulvey's seminal 1975 essay, "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema," in which Mulvey argued that the female body exists as an object of pleasure for the male gaze of the camera and, ergo, masculinizes the viewer regardless of gender. Visually, woman arouses.

Whether or not Sturges is twisting this notion is difficult to tell. His photographs are not as resonant as Sally Mann's photos of her children, as classically informed or formally strident as Mapplethorpe's, as ethnographically navel-gazing as Nan Goldin's images of her circle of N.Y.C. misfits, nor as aggressively fetishistic as Helmet Lang's or Herb Ritts' works. Sturges has said that he documents the changes in female body attitudes from youth to maturity, though some critics claim that it can go either way on the exploitation spectrum. (Sturges, to his credit, has accommodated later modesty: When his young models become more self-conscious about their bodies, he refrains, at their request, from using their photos.) Some of the photographs here do bear witness, however, to what Sturges' personal vision has the potential to become.

Two, in particular, stand out. "Fanny; Montalivet, France" (1996) features a young girl standing with her back to the camera, wind tossing her hair about her face. Faint, blond hairs on her tan skin glow in what appears to be a late afternoon sunshine, and a beach stretches out before her. It's a poignant image that may be a glimpse of youthful ebullience staring at the tumultuous seas of an imminent sexual awakening. In "Vanessa; Montalivet, France" (1997), a teen girl stands with her left arm extended in a graceful line that recalls a ballerina's pose, while her other arm crooks over her head in a gesture that is a teen-ager's clumsy right. It's a pose indicative of the cruel mix of precocious grace and adolescent awkwardness that perfectly captures puberty's growing pains.

If these photographs make you uncomfortable, ask yourself: What is it about them that's so offensive? Almost every family has photo albums with snapshots that aren't much different--baby's first bath; siblings of different ages and genders playing in a sprinkler in the back yard while their bathing suits slip off; a child's comical first use of the grown-up's toilet. You may not share these photos with the public, but they're hardly any reason to send the authorities into your home.

Granted, living in the age of the Internet--the most efficacious porn-delivery service ever invented--has brought the debate about what is or isn't obscene to the fore of the culture wars. In the process, the line separating the pornographic from the erotic or the simple snapshot has become blurred. Almost any image can be made perverse. But advertisements in women's fashion and men's lifestyle magazines are more sexually explicit, even though nudity is rarely involved. It's a function of context. So if you found yourself offended by Sturges' photographs--images of women happy, relaxed, or simply being au naturel--look at them again. Only this time, try looking with your mind out of the gutter.


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