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State of the Art: Talking with Jock Sturges



Dan O Reilly


Controversial photographer Jock Sturges, whose photographs of naturists have elicited much debate-as well as interest from the FBI-was in Columbus, Ohio, in April. Sturges came to Columbus to open an exhibition of his work at the Mauritz Gallery and to speak at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Writer Dan O'Reilly talked with Sturges about black and white, the right wing, and utopian socialism. What follows is the abridged interview:

O'Reilly: Last night at the Columbus College of Art and Design, you said, "Black and white makes that step into metaphor that much easier."

Sturges: Color photography has a tendency to remain more trapped in the real and to be more descriptive of "that thing there" as opposed to being about "that class of things" ...I'm hoping they go beyond that and that they're about childhood and innocence.

0: How aware are you of your role as an agent of social evolution?

S: Alan Coleman has written about my work that it's perhaps aimed at a better world than the one in which we're now living. Before the feds came knocking at my door, I didn't have any such notion at all. But I've since come to understand that the forces who would promote and project shame in the world are holding us back.

O: The naturists you photograph, how aware are they of their role in this?

S: Probably not very. Some of them very much have a mission. They don't go out and grab people by the coattails and say you should come and take your clothes off, but they really believe in the philosophy behind how they are living.

O: In the afterward to your book Radiant Identities, A.D. Coleman says that your photographs "anticipate the emergence of a culture in which such brave, forthright investigations are seen as normal, and their repression is the aberration."

S: The task that lies ahead is not insignificant given our puritanical history... It's been thrown into harsh relief in recent history by the right wing flexing its muscle and trying to impose its artificial and too often distorted moral standards...But, happily, Americans are contrarians. They like to live their lives as free individuals; they don't like having their behavior dictated.

0: Luc Sante, in the New Republic, wrote, "They are pictures of a languorous utopia in which it is always summer..."

S: I tell people in my photographs that critics have remarked at its sense of irreality, these long beaches and this perfect evening light, and they all have the same response-which is that this is very real, that this is exactly how they remember it. I know that my work fails in some ways because it can be too beautiful, too idealized...It's my greatest weakness, but it's also my greatest strength.

O: In the photograph Rita; Monta/ivet, France 1998, the adults are present yet appear mentally absent. I am reminded of the idea of the secret life of children, a secret life of sexuality that children are made to hide.

S: We were all children ourselves and so such lives should in fact be no secret at all, unless your memory is full of erasure marks. If these are, in fact, secret lives, I think that the children lead these lives right in front of us.

O: In your book of photographs The Last Days of Summer you said: "They also seem singularly at peace with their own sexuality as well as the sexuality of their children...The fact that they are beautiful and attractive is something that nobody even suggests should be denied."

S: I keep coming back to the Dutch, because they're so wonderfully pragmatic and practical about sexuality: sex is natural, sex is pleasurable... Instruct people in shame, insist that they deny their sexuality and get a terrible result; be honest with people about their bodies and accept the fact that they're natural creatures and teach them to be responsible.... Naturists, these families in particular, I think they're among the most evolved and mature people in the world, and they raise very wise kids who typically don't have issues left over after their childhood.

O: Elizabeth Beverly quoted one of the naturists: "We are not naked for the pictures, we are naked for the summer, and because we are alive." I am reminded of the sisters in Nikki and Lotte; Montalivet, France, 1997.

S: ...Shame is simply not an aspect of their being and when it's warm in the summer, they have just endured a very cold dark winter in the Netherlands...They are beautiful to watch, a deeply happy people.

O: Misty Dawn; Northern California, 1993.

S: Misty is a complex subject. She photographs beautifully. She's had a rough life...Photographing her was her favorite thing, it was the one thing in which she felt like she had some value. I knew how much it meant to her and had to be careful not to abuse that...The spring rain had swollen the local stream and the water...was thundering down through the gorge...She's a river kid, and this is the texture of her daily life...She can lean against the tree completely nonchalantly with this torrent... There's power, there's absence, there's innocence, there's strength, there's all those things at once.

0: How differently from us do the naturists see these photos?

S: Oh very. That never ceases to amaze me...l never use a photograph that they don't like. One of the most important things I do as a photographer is give prints of all my pictures to the the people who are in them.

0: Do you see America becoming freer more utopian?

S: The world is a very turbulent place; there are forces working and pulling in both directions-inflation...overpopulation... people will project into other arenas their anxieties about those problems... By the same token, we're becoming much more determined with ourselves as a species.

So, I think we are evolving in a smart way. I hope that my work makes some small contribution.

Photographer Jock Sturges at the Mauritz Gallery in Columbus, Ohio. Photo: Sheila M. Fagan.

Dan O'Reilly is a freelance writer living in Columbus, Ohio.


Copyright Dialogue Inc. Jul/Aug 1999

1999 UMI Company; All Rights Reserved. Only fair use, as provided by the United States copyright law, is permitted. UMI Company makes no warranty regarding the accuracy, completeness or timelines of the Publications or the records they contain, or any warranty, express or implied, including any warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose, and shall not be liable for damages of any kind or lost profits or other claims related to them or their use.


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