The work of Jock Sturges [1947- ] raises a number of issues which I am unable, in this short space, to address adequately. Nevertheless, he himself has proposed that his work should serve as a platform for the open discussion of nudity in photography (and in society).
For those who have not seen it, Sturges's primary emphasis is on nude pubescent or pre-pubescent girls. Due to the more permissive atmosphere regarding nudity and sex in Europe, the majority of his images have been made there.
Sturges became notorious when, in 1990, the FBI raided his photographic studio, seizing his files and images, computer, cameras. Sturges was charged with child pornography, but a San Francisco grand jury refused to indict him. Both Sturges, and British photographer David Hamilton, have come repeatedly under attack by cultural watch-dogs (like Operation Rescue, the anti-abortion group), for purportedly crossing the line from legitimate art portraiture, to child pornography.
While Sturges is a professional, in that his work is very well-done, and presented intelligently and with evident taste and care, the implications of his subject-obsession cannot be flagrantly set aside with claims of innocent regard and 1st amendment crusading. In over a dozen slick monographs and catalogues, and many exhibitions and one-man-shows, he has openly and conspicuously flaunted his preoccupation with nude young teen-aged women--easily 90% of his photographic prints are devoted to them. In addition, most of the rest of his subjects are nudes taken at different ages--children under the age of 10, or women in their twenties or thirties, with an occasional young nude male in the mix. In short, Sturges has emphasized his obsession with pre-pubescent young nude women, almost to the exclusion of any other type of subject-matter, even though he is known to have done much other commercial (non-art, non-nude) work, such as of ballet.
Clearly, Sturges wishes to make a point, and he is unashamed and earnest about it. Let's think a bit about what he might be trying to tell us.
Traditionally, the nude as subject in art has been a hot topic. Prior to the 20th Century, images of nude children were almost absent from art generally, though tactfully posed, and modestly conceived images of children and adolescents were common in ancient sculpture and reliefs, and in Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting and sculpture. In late 19th Century England, Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), took a number of pictures of young girls, which some critics believe border on a prurient regard for "little girls"--no surprise, perhaps, given that Carroll's signature work, Alice in Wonderland , features a pre-pubescent English girl. Missing portions of Dodgson's Diaries, and certain facts about his life, tend to suggest that he may have been a paedophile; indeed, Dodgson may have intended to propose marriage to 11-year old Alice Liddell, the presumed model for the fictional Alice.
In the 20th Century, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita [Paris: Olympia Press, 1955], provided a striking instance of a fictionalized paedophilic narrator, Humbert Humbert--whose fixation upon, and adventures with, a New England high school ingenue constituted a fully fleshed-out, and evidently unashamed portrayal of a psychological type which has come to be associated with her name. Though clearly not in the clinical sense a paedophile himself, Nabokov the Author sought to realize a version of the type in no uncertain terms.
I am not trained in psychology, and indeed I'm not altogether invested in psychology as a scientific discipline, believing (as I do) that the field is still in its relative infancy, and that what we don't know about human thought and feeling is of a very much greater portion than that which we do know. However, it is believed by some theorists that genuine paedophiles experience an arrested personality, causing them to fixate on pre-adult girls, instead of adult women. Why and how this occurs, is a matter of dispute among psychologists and psychiatrists. But it seems to be associated with otherwise introverted personalities, whose sense of guilt or rejection reinforces and rationalizes their obsession. There are even some, referred to by supporters as the childlove movement, who advocate the relaxation of age-of-consent laws and mental illness classifications (as child molestation).
It's often convenient to imagine that the time-line of civilized practice is quite long, but we know without any doubt that what we think of as settled society and culture is a very late (new) human development. Our ancestors didn't begin living in "permanent" communities until very late in the game. Life expectancy in pre-civilized circumstances (tribal and/or nomadic), which went on for hundreds of thousands of years, was short, perhaps 30-35 years. It is generally assumed that sexual activity began much earlier in "pre-civilized" human society than it commonly does these days. Girls reaching puberty at age 12-14 began to bear children immediately, experiencing multiple pregnancies, accompanied by many lost infants, by their mid-twenties. What this means in real terms, is that what we now tend to regard with surprise and perhaps revulsion, was probably the behavioral norm among primitive human societies. The idea of regardng very young girls as potential sex objects, desirable and ripe for indoctrination and mating, is a much older and more common "tradition" than the customs, laws and habits which have developed over the last 4000 years. Age-of-consent debates, and various controversial religious precepts regarding procreation notwithstanding, cultural notions of prescribed social and sexual interaction between individuals have undergone changes over time, and there are significant differences among present-day cultures--primitive, residual and "modern"--which suggests that there is no hard and fast definition across the spectrum of human society that supports a single interpretation of the meaning and variation of sexual imagery.
Is Sturges's work an example of unsublimated sexual obsession, masquerading as a system of valorization of his subjects' confident identity and lack of shame, as he has claimed in his public statements? What exactly do Sturges's images of naked girls, standing idly on beaches or by bungalows, or in forest settings, tell us about them, or him?
Traditionally, sexually charged images may resemble multiple different idealizations. When people refer to "child pornography" today, they usually mean the unwanted exploitation of innocent (i.e., "underage") subjects, designed and made to appeal to those for whom such images are a form of vicarious stimulation and prurient regard--a projection of forbidden indulgence, a secret game or pastime. Sturges has said that his images "respect" the subjects' lives and personalities, that they "own" their bodies in a way which is neither prurient, nor naively beguiled.
But how subjects may feel about themselves, or about what images of them may actually mean, either in terms of the range of cultural contexts in which they are viewed, or how the full implication or eventual consequences may not be clear to them, is not a separate, irrelevant fact about this process. This is especially true of innocent subjects, who may not yet fully realize the degree of appropriation of their identities and lives which photographic reproduction may entail. Are girls of 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16 years of age, fully capable of taking full responsibility for the potential consequences of becoming nude subjects, published or displayed around the world? Does the model release, or even parental consent, entitle an artist (or photographer) to seize the souls of children, to capture their identities for purposes which go far beyond some admittedly immature sense of permission which they may imagine they are feeling?
In what sense, ultimately, are we obliged to accept the pretext of Sturges's claim of politically correct "beauty" or "innocence" or morally neutral aesthetic exploration, in place of the more damning assessment of a "perverted" obsession to expose pre-pubescent girls to a serious art public?
The unadorned human body, in all its various manifestations, is subject to as many different feelings and meanings as there are kinds of people. In the totally objective sense, a naked human body is neither more, nor less, the sum of its purposes and functions. Its structure is determined by genetic inheritance, and subject to the manipulations, augmentations and transformations of aging, defacement, or decoration. It means what we want it to mean. In the hands of a photographer, a photograph tends to mean what the photographer wants it to mean: He intends that this image be seen in this way, for this purpose. On balance, I'd have to say that Sturges wants us to see and appreciate pre-pubescent or early pubescent girls as desirable, beautiful, unspoiled, and ultimately, as common things, i.e., the more we see of them, the less shocking and unusual they will seem. Is this an exploitation, or a de-sensitization, of innocence? Probably both. No matter how hard Sturges may try, he can't altogether succeed in making us believe that an 11-year old fully comprehends the meaning of her nakedness before his vision.
In Lolita, Nabokov suggested, indirectly, that Humbert Humbert, rather than being the seducer, the manipulator, was indeed the victim, not just of his own obsession, but of the shrewd manipulations of his love-object. Despite her supposed innocence and guilelessness, she used Humbert to attain her selfish ends. But that was fiction. Sturges is photographing real girls, who live real lives. Sturges may fantasize, or not, about his subjects, in ways that belie his vaunted artistic program. But no one who so single-mindedly, and determinedly, labored so hard to expose a forbidden subject as Sturges has done, can claim not to have some very powerful personal (and ulterior) motives. The sense of violation and discomfort which accompanies a viewing of his images doesn't go away.
[Note: I have posted three of Sturges's images, commonly available for download on the internet. I could have made copies of these same, or other, images from several of his books. I chose these because they were among the most "tame" in terms of exposure. I do not wish to offend anyone, or to incite morbid curiosity. They are for illustration only.]