Jock Sturges: Twenty-Five Years

by Matt Damsker


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Edited with preface by Paul Cava. 25 plates, available as 8-by-10-inch gelatin silver prints, signed and numbered in editions of 25. Published by Paul Cava Fine Art, 35 Union Ave., Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004. ISBN No. 0-9707966-1-7. Phone: 1-610-664-3348; email: ; Web site: .

Jock Sturges' beautiful nudes--young girls captured as they move from childhood toward maidenhood and beyond--may stand as metaphors for innocence and experience, though at best they are paragons of black-and-white artistry, their bodies at rest in a play of natural light. The work suggests a rhetoric of nymphets in Eden, along with a certain Maxfield Parrish utopianism, but Sturges is a realist, looking for the power of character and personhood within his stunningly lean and healthy subjects.

The 25 plates in this catalogue are fine reproductions of the gelatin silver prints offered by Paul Cava Fine Art, and each photo casts an individual glow. Sturges' subjects are part of his and his wife Maia's extended family and friends, photographed in settings of rustic privilege in Northern California, France, or Italy--often at the beach, in or on the water. The aura of a private world and languid summer days pervades, with nudity a casual extension of all that. Thus, the 1989 image of Marine, long-limbed and at ease with her adolescent perfection, is a study as much in unassuming intelligence as in beauty.

The older, wiser Minna, however, posed protectively above her sleeping dog in Point Reyes, CA, is an image of stunning beauty ready for the world, her flawless face and nubile body utterly self-possessed. Other images, such as a barely pubescent Misty Dawn hanging tough, her arms upraised to grab a line of rope, her head turned slightly, epitomize, in Sturges' own accompanying text, "a newly arisen self-knowledge and wariness in the world."

Indeed, the theme of awakening--to sexuality, the predatory world, mortality--is implicit yet unforced in these photos. Bettina, seen with her eyes closed and arms slightly outstretched, receptive to sensation in a field of sunlight, is a pure image of trust and vulnerability, while Cecile, seen in profile, her arms protectively crossed on her torso, is contemplative and demure. And the image of a 17-year-old Fanny, a dark, intense-eyed goddess grown into the curves of a woman, is remarkable--she poses stretched out on her right side, eyeing us tentatively, richly complicated in her gaze, while her little sisters laze in the background, as if to suggest the childhood world Fanny has left behind.

Sturges acknowledges that he prefers to crop his photos to avoid such narrative density, relying on the sitters' force of personality and little else, but in a few of his shots the implicit stories are wonderful. An image of the Dutch sisters Lotte and Nikki on the beach with their beautiful mother, Vera, is a generational archetype, as the younger sister cleaves to the still-strong mother while the older sister stands tall and looks away, independently. At the center, Vera gazes at the camera with all the worldly-wise power and rue of mature womanhood.

If anything, Sturges' photos--utterly contemporary as they are--may seem like relics of a less sensitive time, a time before the Internet age, when the disturbing realities of child pornography and celebrity pedophilia seemed less pervasive. In fact, Sturges was bought up on charges--then cleared of them--that he violated U.S. pornography laws in the early 1990s. By now, it is hard to look at Sturges' shots of pubescent girls and not wonder about their propriety--but, as has been said, good taste and propriety are the enemies of art. Sturges is certainly an artist, and Beauty, nothing less, is his Truth.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.