Fascination With Beauty: Jock Sturges


By Kay Kenny

(Interview originally published August 2007)

Jock Sturges’ large format portraits of radiant young people photographed nude in the landscape, luminous with the dying light of a summer day, have been exhibited throughout the world. Several monographs of his work are available in major bookstores, and the images are in the collections of major institutions including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; The Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art; and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. However, the work is not without controversy: the nascent erotic quality of his frequent subjects—nude adolescent and pubescent girls—is a magnet for close-minded individuals and suspect voyeurs. An FBI attempt to indict him in the 1990s led to an outburst of support throughout the nation. In spite of his past legal battles, he continues to work with his models to this day, but moving forward past the notoriety of that moment was perhaps the most difficult process of all. Now with workshops, exhibits, new books on the way and decades of working with the same models and their families, he focuses on the work, not on the legal threats of a virulent and damaged minority.

Maeve, David, Miranda, Megan, Tara

You began your career as a photographer at a very early age. You were barely out of your teens when you signed up with the Navy and became an instructor of photography as well as a Russian interpreter. Where and when did you acquire these skills at such a tender age?
Trial and error, lots and lots of practice and lots and lots of bad pictures. I was also stationed in Monterey, California, in 1966 for a year where I benefited from the tutelage of a woman named Ellen Ross Gibson. She ran the special services photo lab at the Defense Language Institute where I was studying Russian, and luckily for me was one of the best teachers I have ever known. She knew Ansel Adams and Wynn Bullock and dragged me over to their studios on a number of occasions. I remember getting into an extended argument with Mr. Bullock about the merits of Microdol-X (which I preferred then because of its high acutance) and D–76, which he championed because of its tonal precision. He was right, of course, but it took me another decade to figure that out on my own. The arrogance of youth does make so many things take longer than they should really have to.

You went on to Marlboro College in Vermont from 1970 to ’74, where you not only taught photography as an undergraduate, but initiated the program as well. Was it in college that you discovered your special interest in photographing particularly young women and girls in the nude?
Marlboro was indeed where I began my lifelong work of women. The first 23 years of my life had in fact exposed me hardly at all to the opposite sex. When I found myself in the wonderfully liberal and emphatically co-ed context of Marlboro after years of all male schools and camps followed by four years in the military, I was instantly riveted by a fascination that endures to this day. Years later when I went to the Art Institute in Seattle for a Masters degree, I was constantly puzzled by students wondering “what to do” in art. I knew. I should say, though, that it would be almost seven more years before photography of people without clothes began to dominate my work.

Minna, Northern California, 1978

Let’s talk about your technique. You are well known for your use of a very large 8 x 10″ view camera and fine black-and-white prints. The view camera is a fairly cumbersome and imposing device for taking portraits in the landscape. It hardly makes for spontaneity in your subjects. How do you overcome that?
Years of practice with emphasis on speed in my technique. If I do not have a major tripod adjustment I can usually make a picture in just a few seconds. Not using a light meter helps with that as does almost always working with the same lens, so that I know instinctively where to place the camera and what position of focus will be required. I am so dedicated to a rapid technique that I actually use a cotton swab to put silicone lubricant in the back of the camera to help film holders slip in and out with the least resistance possible. My best pictures are invariably the result of seeing something happen with my subjects that is natural, unplanned, unposed. They derive directly from the real. I say, “Don’t move!” and make the picture as quickly as I can. That being said, my images are still more static than the works of people done in motion with small formats. I don’t regret that at all. The images thus become more formal statements of identity and of the moment in time and light when the subject and I paused to craft a deliberate memory.

Recent exhibitions of your work seem to show a shift from the fine shimmer of beautifully printed black-and-white silver gelatin prints to color photography. Color images have the capacity to create an immediacy of time and place as opposed to black-and-white’s timelessness. Why, after so many decades of working in black-and-white, is color now your process of choice?
Well, two things. One—the silver gelatin papers I had printed on my whole life are disappearing from the world, chased into oblivion by the digital revolution. And two, the advent of high-end Epson printers are making it possible for the first time to make color prints that are stable enough to satisfy my own desire for permanence and precise enough in their color and general image quality to truly delight the eye. It was always an absolute truth in color printing that no printing process up to and including dye-transfers would or could ever approach the beauty of an original transparency. That is not true anymore. What Epson has accomplished is truly revolutionary. I hope of course to continue printing in the darkroom as I do love silver prints more than anything, but if they do finally go away, I am ready for the next step. It is very important to remember that the history of our medium is littered with the bones of folks who didn’t keep up.

You have published seven books and exhibited your work internationally for decades. Your loyalty to your subjects has always remained steadfast: most of your photographs are lovely young women and pubescent girls nude in the landscape. Besides the advent of the use of color in your work, what else has shifted in recent years?
As my subjects and I have mutually aged, we are drawn to work that is slightly more psychologically complex—or so it seems to us at least. Some years I move in, and then others I move way back and include the sky. Recently, we are making a lot of large prints and that leads me to seek deeper, more detailed grounds and more dramatic, physically beautiful light. But none of that is as important as my relationship with my subjects. That is the constant. My work is merely a reflection of my admiration for the people in my pictures. Thus it will never change that much—or at least I don’t expect it to. A few of my galleries have complained that my work has limited itself to this one dimension—they are impatient with me. I ignore that or simply leave them for others. It takes a lifetime to perfect the mechanical and emotional act of seeing and rendering. On good days, I feel like I am about halfway there.

From all reports, it seems that the FBI raid on your apartment in 1990 started with a tip from a lab concerning “questionable photographs of juveniles” that resulted in a raid on the home of Joe Semien who was working on inter-negatives from color slides of yours. Arrested, all his possessions related to his photographic business confiscated and under great pressure from both the San Francisco Police and the FBI, Semien admitted that the negatives were yours. You were subsequently the target of a similar raid and a great legal battle began. Both you and Semien were eventually cleared, but not without battle scars. In the mid-’90s, you were again the subject of scandal when right-wing conservatives began a campaign against bookstores that sold books by you, Sally Mann and David Hamilton and convinced grand juries in Alabama and Tennessee to indict Barnes & Noble on child pornography charges. Once more, the charges were dropped, but you are now a bellwether for photographers defining the line between fine art and pornography. After so many years of upholding the rights for fine art nude photographs of children under the age of consent, are you now comfortable with this role?
For the record, the color slides were actually made by my wife. The answer to this question could go to book length. To presume any level of comfort with the role you describe risks implying that this is a role I chose to accept. It was and is not. Malicious circumstances forced me to take on this fight. I fought and resisted with as much energy as I could muster, supported by the great many wonderful people who came to my aid. Eight different grand juries were asked to indict me and/or my publishers, and they each said no. These juries were impaneled from the ranks of ordinary citizens—people whom I regret that I will never meet—and each time they found the First Amendment more valuable than the vulgar assertions of the prosecutors. My faith in and gratitude for the intelligence of the American people grew enormously from this fact. While those qualities have been sorely tested at the hands of the current mis-administration, I am still steadfast in my affection for the American experiment. If my work succeeds in militating against the politics of shame, so be it. My wife and I, and now our daughter as well, spend much of our time in Europe where attitudes about the body are frankly more mature and rational than what one can encounter here. If I have a conclusion of any value to draw from this perception, it is simply that it is vital for Americans to travel more and see for themselves the richness that diverse and open minds can engender. Beyond this I really do not care to talk that much about the efforts that were made to prosecute my work and me. To do so grants power to those who sought to oppress me, and they deserve none. I would always far prefer to simply talk about the work itself.

One of your oft-quoted descriptions of working with young people is that you never ask them to sign a model release: the image always belongs to them, and they have the right to control it. You seem very eager to avoid exploiting them at a vulnerable time in their life. In this age of computer wizardry, do you ever worry about their faces or bodies being exploited by others?
This is in fact a constant battle for me. The Internet has not been my friend. My work has been pirated and disseminated in precincts that are the opposite of what anyone could admire. I’ve lost people from my work and even an entire book of work done in Ireland because of the lawless tendency of the web. I’ve had to rely on an invisible host of Internet “friends” to help me police this, and for the most part, I feel like this works. But it’s a huge drain and waste of time. The irony is that the “fans” of my work who indulge in these abuses do as much to hinder its progress as the federal government ever did.

Have you ever felt exploited by your models?
Oh, a few times. I tend to err on the side of trusting people more than I should perhaps, and that has proved a mistake on a few occasions. But it’s a mistake I hope I keep on making, because I would always rather love too much than not enough. I like people and am most always willing to grant them the large benefit of the doubt, as it were. I offered tea and coffee to the federal agents who were raiding my apartment in San Francisco all those years ago (they refused). Isn’t that strange? I have no control over it.

You have often spoken of your need to bond with the families of the children you photograph. You often talk about the process of photographing generations: young girls to mothers to children of those mothers. You have a daughter of your own now. Do you intend to swath her nude body in the same graceful beautiful light throughout the interlude of her life that is her childhood?
If that is the light she cares to inhabit and if she chooses to live absent shame and clothing as we do during our long European summers, then yes, she will be in my work as well. But I anticipate that she will be exceptionally hard for me to photograph as she rises into her life because I am the father figure, and she will necessarily do battle with me as she transits adolescence—she’s already not doing a bad job of this at age two. So she will sooner or later say no to me, and when she does it will be painful, but I will accept it without question. As is true with all my subjects, I will only ever want her to be in my pictures if that is where she herself actively wants to be.

Evelyne et Celie

Your models seem to adore you: they come to your openings and you keep in touch with them through all the stages of their lives. You often talk about your images as evolutions of the body as well as personality. Are you going to continue photographing this evolution as your models mature into their forties and fifties?
I already am. The only people I have ever actually stopped with are people whose peregrinations have carried them too far beyond my orbit. My models are family to me. I can never have enough of them. And the longer one knows people, the deeper the friendship. And that is in the pictures—or at least I would like to think so.

Your most recent publication Notes, Aperture, 2004, seems to reveal all: tips on technique, your relationships with your models, and much more. Now that you have bared your working techniques and model stories to the public, what is next?
I am working on two new books right now. The first will be a largish Aperture monograph on the 25 plus years of work I have done in California with my model, Misty Dawn. About 10 per cent of the images will have appeared in other books but the rest of the work will all be in print for the first time. We are hoping for a fall 2007 publication date. The second book will be a large color monograph printed and published by Steidl Verlag in Germany. As far as I know this will go in spring of 2008. My hope is that it will be in the same format as my Scalo title, New Work. I am shooting more and more fashion these days, as well and teaching workshops in Palm Springs in early May and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in October. My next two shows are in Paris in June at Gallerie Acte 2 and Tokyo in August at Gallery Toki No Wasuremono. In short, with all of the above and a two-year-old, I am always busy, always tired and always happy. Imagine that.

Kay Kenny is a photographer, writer and teaches photography at ICP and NYU. Examples of her work can be seen at