Budding beauties

Jock Sturges courts controversy with his passion for nudes

For three decades, photographer Jock Sturges has made naked girls his life’s work. He has surveyed every variety of underage pulchritude — coltish, strong, lithe, wholesome, sultry, aloof, curvaceous, athletic.

The children, adolescents and women who have beguiled Sturges will be on view in a retrospective of his work opening April 5 at Momus Gallery. Sturges will attend the opening and lecture at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and the Woodruff Arts Center.

Unlike Sturges’ self-proclaimed childhood penchant for celluloid ice queens, the photographer’s images are far from any Grace Kelly notion of beauty. Instead, these photographs — of young girls reclining indoors or draped across rock jetties beachside — have everything to do with Sturges’ particular taste in bodies and age brackets, as distinctly his own as the large-boned Amazonian women of fashion photographer Helmut Newton. In an art world limbo somewhere between Sally Mann artfulness and Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts cheesecake, Sturges’ work hovers between old school photographic portraiture and poster art with its unceasing attention to seductive beauty.

“Is there an erotic passage between me and my subjects? I find them physically beautiful and in that finding, find no small percentage of my instinct to photograph them,” says Sturges, in a phone interview from his home in Seattle. “But there is no eros that passes between me and a 10-year-old at all really beyond that admiration.”

But it is the implicitly erotic nature of his photographs of naked children who display themselves unself-consciously for the camera that has haunted Sturges’ career. These frankly displayed images of newly formed breasts, bald genitalia and the downy-white hair that covers young bodies are unquestionably beautiful and poetic because children are beautiful and poetic.

Sturges says controversy about his work stems from America’s morality “issues,” issues of shame and sexual repression that warp perception of the images. And he’s grappled time and again with these issues, both in the courtroom and outside of it.

In 1990, the FBI raided Sturges’ San Francisco studio and seized a number of images used to bolster claims of child pornography. The case was eventually thrown out by a grand jury.

A lesser-known but equally besmirching mark was cast upon Sturges’ in 1995 with the release of a small art film called Art for Teachers of Children, which depicts the romantic relationship between a 28-year-old photographer and a 14-year-old student at the boarding school where he teaches, a relationship based on the one between Sturges and the filmmaker, Jennifer Montgomery.

Questions of taste or artistic merit have thus tended to be overshadowed by the artist’s notoriety. As with any controversy, subtlety is trampled by invective and cant. In this regard, it has been a partial asset for Sturges, who can instantly squelch objections to the work by invoking freedom of speech and artistic expression.

But that doesn’t dispel some of the creepiness the images inspire, of children too young to give consent and female sexuality at every life stage packaged into a commodity, whether to sell a photograph or suntan lotion. As any Internet search under “girls” will show, Sturges is not the first to treat the “inherent” sexuality of young girls, only one of the more high falutin’.

“If you look at my pictures, you’re going to see very often a woman standing there naked. And what’s the difference between that and a pin-up? The truth is that a pin-up, its major function in life is to have you disconnect from any sense of responsibility for dealing with the person and look just at her body: Look at her large breasts, look at the meat and think what you could do to that meat.

“But in my pictures you’ll see that virtually always the person is looking in the camera with strength. And yes, the body’s beautiful, but you cannot disassociate yourself at all from the responsibility of treating the person who inhabits it.”

Though Sturges’ critics most often liken the work to pornography, the better comparison might be to classical oil painting, which also trafficked in enticing images of girls and women displaying their bodies for the painter’s eye and for the artwork’s eventual buyer. Work like those on display at Momus often mime the conventions of classical oils — the natural settings, the emphasis on nudity, the bodies aligned to give the viewer the best vantage.

But beauty and nudity do not necessarily connote, apologies to Keats, truth. Beauty also can be a distraction that distances us from the personality of its owner — and takes away more than it offers, saying more about the desires of the artist than the person depicted.

Jock Sturges Retrospective runs April 5-May 3 at Momus, Tula Art Center, 75 Bennett St., Space 0-2, 404-355-4180. Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Sturges presents slide/lecture presentations with Q&A April 3 at 7 p.m. at the Atlanta College of Art, Circle Room and April 4 at 7 p.m. at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. Sturges holds a portfolio review and workshop April 5, 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, 535 Means St. $50. Limited space. Call 404-355-4180.??