On April 25, 1990, a group of FBI agents and officers of the San Francisco Police Department raided the studio of photographer Jock Sturges, seizing his cameras, his prints, his computer —
Interview with Jock Sturges, May 25, 1994
On April 25, 1990, a group of FBI agents and officers of the San Francisco Police Department raided the studio of photographer Jock Sturges, seizing his cameras, his prints, his computer — everything relating to his work as an internationally recognized fine art photographer, much of whose work involves nude portraiture of children and adolescents. The law officers discovered that they had taken on one of the art elite’s own as art communities, both in San Francisco and nationally, rallied around Sturges, his work, and the legitimacy of respectful nude photography of children and adolescents. Eventually, a San Francisco grand jury refused to indict Sturges on any charges.
Now Sturges’s work is again under legal attack. Grand juries in Montgomery, Alabama, and Franklin, Tennessee, have indicted bookseller Barnes & Noble on child pornography and obscenity charges for selling Sturges’s book, Radiant Identities, as well as the work of British photographer David Hamilton. Grand juries have been impaneled in two additional states and others may follow, according to Sturges. Supporters of Randall Terry and his organization, Operation Rescue — best known for their protests against abortion clinics — take credit for bringing the books to the attention of prosecutors by such actions as physically destroying books in Barnes & Noble stores.
“People need to realize that a cultural war has been declared here,” Sturges says strongly. “A virulent, aggressive minority has decided that Americans don’t know themselves what it is they should see, and need to be protected by people who are wiser than they are, even if they are only a tiny sliver of the population. This represents a whole new level of attention to the arts by repressive forces. It’s very scary and it has to be withstood.
“The state attorney general in Alabama, a man who is running for re-election, postulates that my work is ‘obscene material of people under the age of 17 involved in obscene acts.’ This is pretty chilling language because, in fact, the people in my pictures are not engaged in any acts at all. They are living in contexts that are naturist, which is to say that when it’s warm and people feel like it, they don’t wear clothes. He finds that, by virtue of the language of his indictment, somehow inherently obscene.”
“It’s laughable and we’ll win these cases, however far it has to go,” Sturges continues. “If it gets to the Supreme Court, I’ll have the directors of every museum in the country as expert testimony that my work is legitimate art. If obscenity is simply a matter of somebody being without clothes, then there are so many other things that would be inherently obscene — medical books, the National Geographic.”
Sturges does not relish being back in the legal limelight. Although the indictments are not directed against him, his legal expenses will be substantial. In the meantime, the turmoil pulls him away from his work and his normal life. “It’s a madhouse around here,” Sturges says with more than a little exasperation. “Thursday we had 140 phone calls.”
As we are talking, the doorbell rings. Sturges stiffens. “I hate it when that happens,” he says with an edge.
“They came, they did not conquer, they went away, and they made me fairly famous in the process.”
“When what happens?” I ask.
“When the bell rings and I’m not expecting anyone. I still remember the time that happened when it was the feds and the police who had come to turn my life upside down.”
The following interview was conducted between the time of Sturges’s encounter with the FBI and the current indictments.
STEINBERG: You’ve said that you don’t want to dwell on your legal situation.
STURGES: Not really. The problem with being investigated as invasively as I have been is that you run the risk of having that episode be the defining event in your life. I have no desire to be defined by such assholes, period. What I’m good at is making art. I became good at defending myself, but as far as I am concerned, that was a transient skill. It was an occasion I had to rise to. I’d rather get back to making art than talking about it.
They came, they did not conquer, they went away, and they made me fairly famous in the process. It’s no small irony that the government inevitably and invariably ends up promoting precisely that which they would most like to repress.
STEINBERG: Has that in fact happened to you?
STURGES: Well, yes and no. My work was doing pretty well before, and now it is doing dramatically better. Is that because people are collecting the pictures because of their notoriety? Or is it simply because people are more aware of the work? I don’t know. I’ll never get to know.
It’s really, really hard to make it as a fine-art photographer exclusively. Now that I have, I’m permanently deprived of the pleasure of knowing whether that’s based entirely on my work’s merit or whether that’s based on my notoriety. That’s something that’s been stolen from me that I don’t get back.
I’ve been taken to task by some critics for exploiting the whole situation, but that was something I would never have chosen to have happen to me. I have to some extent, perhaps, exploited it, but only because living well was the single revenge presented to me, if that makes any sense. To basically take the opportunity that the feds created for me with their malicious intent and turn it into an advantage. That feels really good. I went through terrible anguish, as [my work was] derailed by the morbid preoccupation with other people’s sexuality that the feds impose on you.
All my life I’ve taken photographs of people who are completely at peace being what they were in the situations I photographed them in. In very many cases that was without clothes, and it simply was not an issue. They were without clothes before I got there and they were without clothes when I left. That was just a choice that they had made, one they didn’t even think about. They were simply more comfortable that way. It never occurred to me that anybody could find anything about that perverse, which is evidence of my having been pretty profoundly naive about the American context. I’m guilty of extraordinary naiveté, I suppose. But it’s a naiveté that I really don’t want to abandon, not even now.
STEINBERG: Having been through all that, I can’t imagine how you can take photographs now without having that somewhere in your mind.
STURGES: There are photographs that I don’t take now, that I previously would have taken without any thought at all as to any misinterpretations. The truth is that people who are naturists, who are used to being without clothes, are unselfconscious about how they sit around, how they throw themselves down on the ground, how they sit in a chair, how they stand. They don’t think about it; it’s not an issue. Before, I’d photograph anything. I didn’t think there was anything more or less obscene about any part of the body. Now I realize that there are certain postures and angles that make people see red, which are evidence of original sin or something, and I avoid that. But it’s difficult. At one point, Maia [Sturges’s wife] found me crossing legs, avoiding angles, giving instructions which inadvertently were instructing young people that some aspect of what they were doing, some aspect of who they were, was inherently profane. I’ve had to relearn how I work with people so that if I avoid different things I don’t send those messages in doing so. I’m the last person who has any desire to instruct anybody in shame. That’s no errand for me.
STEINBERG: The semantics are tricky here, but I’m interested in whether you see your work as erotic. I don’t mean erotic as sexual and I don’t mean erotic as intending that people who look at your photos become aroused. But certainly, when I look at many of your photos, when I look at many of Sally Mann’s photos, what I see is the natural eroticism of children, or preteens, or teens.
“Western civilization insists on these concrete demarcations. Before 18, sexually you don’t exist; after 18, you exist like crazy. It’s ridiculous.”
STURGES: Western civilization insists on these concrete demarcations. Before 18, sexually you don’t exist; after 18, you exist like crazy. It’s ridiculous. The truth is that from birth on homo sapiens is, to one extent or another, a fairly sensual species. There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t like being caressed. Children masturbate as early as one-and-a-half or one-year old. They do it spontaneously and without any thought that there’s anything evil about making themselves feel good. That’s a sensual experience in their lives, one that should remain entirely the property of the child, as it were.
Very naturally, the ages of consent in Europe are vastly lower than they are here, in recognition of the fact that when you have people involved with sexuality you may as well make it legal so you can better deal with them about it, so they’ll talk to you and you can educate them.
We’re really blind in this country. People don’t see the extraordinary inconsistencies. I think the average age for the loss of virginity for female children in this country now is something like 14-1/2 or 15. There’s a vast epidemic of unwed mothers and teenage mothers, and yet we have an 18-year-old age of consent which makes them all felons. If the age of consent were lower, you could talk to these children intelligently and not have to worry about school boards and PTA’s going apoplectic if you mention the word “condom,” let alone sex. As soon as you forbid something, you make it extraordinarily appealing. You also bring in the phenomenon of shame. I’m perpetually exasperated by the American take on sexuality.
To give you a good example of a more intelligent way of doing business, in the Netherlands, the age of consent, I think, is 13, and children younger than that are not militantly discouraged from being sensual human beings. It’s not a libertine culture — it’s actually fairly conservative in some ways — but the Dutch quite intelligently recognize that people are sexually active fairly young in their lives in this day and age. One of the results of this is a fascinating demographic: The incidences of child abuse in Holland are vastly less than they are here. Why? Because children belong to themselves in that culture. If somebody aggresses them — touches them in a way that’s inappropriate — they’ll talk [about it]. They’re not ashamed to be physical human beings. Their physical privacy belongs to them and they tell and sexual abusers are caught and stopped and treated and dealt with.
In our society there’s so much shame attached to sexuality that sexual abusers here on the average have had something like 70 or 100 victims before they’re finally caught. In Holland the average is like three or four because shame is absent and people tell much sooner. So when moral crusaders raise [age of consent] limits, create still higher barriers, they’re getting the opposite of what they want. It’s very shortsighted, I think, to not understand better how the species works psychodynamically.
STEINBERG: Focus a little for me on how that affects how you see your work. Isn’t what you’re calling the sensuality of children, or pubescent teenagers, a major part of what you go for, of what makes a photo of yours work?
STURGES: I’m an artist who’s attracted to a specific way of seeing and a way of being. Any artist involved in their work is going to have a focus in what they do. I am fascinated by the human body and all its evolutions. The images I like best are parts of series that I’ve started, in some cases, with the pregnancies of the mothers of the children in question, and I continue that series right on through the birth of children to the child that resulted from that first pregnancy. I have series that are 25 years long. I recently photographed a woman with two children whom I photographed first when she was the age of the older of her children.
I have this naive and quixotic hope that in seeing the physical progress from start to “no finish,” from the beginning on, in looking at the body in all its different changes — looking at the fat-bellied babies, to thinner children, they get straight, they get long, they become sticks, they begin to develop, their hips go, the whole process matures — that people understand that the person occupying that body is more than just a physical object. The pictures don’t objectify: they’re about the evolution of personality and self as much as they are about the evolution of the body. What stays the same is not the body, but character and personality. These evolve and mature too, but there are certain ways of standing, certain sets to the eyes, certain behavioral consistencies, which you can see from the very youngest photographs. It’s just always there. It’s fascinating to see what stays the same, and what changes.
My hope is that my work is in some way counter-pinup. A pinup asks you to suspend interest in who the person is and occupy yourself entirely with looking at the body, fantasizing about what you could do with that body, completely ignoring how the person might feel about it. People who make pinup photographs don’t care who the woman is, what tragedies or triumphs that person’s life might encompass. My work hopefully works exactly counter to that. My ambition is that you look at the pictures and realize what complex, fascinating, interesting people every single one of my subjects is.
STEINBERG: Maybe the point is that you don’t exclude or try to screen out their existence as erotic, sensual beings, and that makes your work striking because everybody else is screening that out.
STURGES: We’re all taught that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to respond to the world. I, by good fortune, have managed to be around a lot of people who have much looser rule structure than the rest of us do. I’m still surprised when somebody finds one of my pictures shocking.
STEINBERG: Are you surprised when people find your photos erotic?
STURGES: No. Not at all.
“I found myself serving a sentence of public denial from the very second the raid on my apartment happened.”
STEINBERG: And yet you seem to go out of your way to deny that the photos are erotic, to disassociate from collections of photos that are erotic, and so on.
STURGES: Let me also make an important distinction here. I will always admit immediately to what’s obvious, which is that homo sapiens is inherently erotic or sensual from birth. But that eroticism and sensuality remain the property of the individual in question up until they become sexually of age. It’s arguable what that age is. If I said for attribution that [coming of age sexually occurred] before 18 years old, I’d be hung, drawn, and quartered in American society, whereas in Europe it would raise no eyebrows at all.
But there’s also something else. As soon as the system, or an individual in the system, accuses another individual — as I was implicitly accused, because there were never any charges brought against me — the accused is forced into artificial polarities of political posture. As soon as somebody says that you might be x, you have to immediately say, “Oh no, I’m y,” even if in fact the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I found myself serving a sentence of public denial from the very second the raid on my apartment happened. I had to pretend to be something that, quite frankly, I’m probably not, which is a lily-white, absolutely artistically pure human being. In fact, I don’t believe I’m guilty of any crimes, but I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual, and psychological change, and there’s an erotic aspect to that. It would be disingenuous of me to say there wasn’t.
There it is; so what? That fascination pervades the species from the beginning of time; people just admit to it to varying degrees.
One of the fascinating things for me has been to look at who the accusers are, because invariably, when somebody becomes interested in your sexuality, in your moral life, they’re very often manifesting an attempt to disguise disrepair in their own personal sexual life or morality. It’s what I call the trembling finger syndrome. If somebody’s pointing a trembling finger at your pants and saying you shouldn’t be doing something, follow that finger back, go up the arm and look at the head that’s behind it, because there’s almost always something fairly woolly in there.
STEINBERG: How do you work with models, particularly young models, in a way that does not appropriate their sexuality, their eroticism, their sensuality, for adult purposes?
STURGES: The transactions between me and the people that I photograph are very very collaborative. I know the families that I photograph extremely well and have known them for a very long time. The kids really enjoy what they do. I check with them constantly to make sure that they’re really happy to be there. I give them lots of outs so that the pressure of my personality, which children find charming as a rule, does not force them into doing things that they don’t want to do.
STEINBERG: How do you do that?
STURGES: I’m always saying, “Are you cold?” “Do you want to stop?” “Have you had enough?” “I don’t want you just to be here; I want you to be really glad to be here.” Language like that all the time.
STEINBERG: Do they like posing?
STURGES: They adore it. Are you kidding?
STEINBERG: What do they like about it?
STURGES: They like being taken seriously as people. After they’ve been in the process for a while, they realize they get all the pictures that we do — the families get a copy of every photograph that I take — and they begin to really enjoy being thought of as beautiful. We live in an age where anonymity is growing in magnitude like a bomb going off. As media stars become increasingly powerful, the rest of us are increasingly ciphers. The distance between the lives [of celebrities] and our lives is growing all the time. Children feel absolutely invisible, unnoticed, and as if they can make no difference. The more of the world we see in the media, the more aware we are of how insignificant any one of us is.
Kids feel this, even if they can’t articulate it in quite that way. Time and again, when interviewed about being photographed, they talk about the photography as a way of becoming less anonymous. They like the admiration; they like the thought that somebody thinks that they can be art.
Now, there’s [also] what happens after the photographs are made. It’s not hard for me to imagine that there are some [people] who will buy my book, buy my photographs, look at them and have “impure thoughts.” There are people out there who buy shoe ads, Saran Wrap, and all manner of things, who have impure thoughts. I can’t really do anything about those people, except hope that, if they attend to my work closely enough, they’ll ultimately come to realize that these are real people.
What pedophiles and people who have sexual desires on children lose sight of to a terrible, terrible degree — a devastating degree — is that their victims are real people who will suffer forever whatever abuses are perpetrated on them. If I’m able to make pictures of children that are so real, as you follow the children growing up over the years, perhaps there will be something cautionary in that visual example. The truth is that every pedophile’s victim eventually grows up and becomes an adult who will turn around and that’s when they get caught.
STEINBERG: How does your policy of consent work for the models? I know that you give them ongoing control over their images.
STURGES: Right. They control their photographs because I don’t let them sign model releases. I urge them never to sign a model release for anybody unless they have been paid specifically to do a specific job on a contractual basis, for an advertising agency or something. Who knows how they’re going to change? They might marry a Methodist minister from Minnesota and have a very conservative life. At some point in the future they might decide that these pictures embarrass them. The control shouldn’t be mine, it should be the kids’. This creates a very complex life for me, I promise you. When I want to use a picture in a book, I’ve got to call foreign countries, find people, explain the context. My phone bills are astronomical sometimes.
“I’ve had a number of American adolescents who, when they hit high school, said ‘I really don’t want to see these pictures published right now,’ and they were immediately pulled.”
STEINBERG: Have you ever had people who have wanted you to pull pictures?
STURGES: I’ve had a number of American adolescents who, when they hit high school, said “I really don’t want to see these pictures published right now,” and they were immediately pulled. I took them out of the galleries. They completely ceased to exist, as far as public [access to] the images went. But when the kids were finished with high school they have also said, “Don’t worry about that, I just went through a stage and it’s fine now.”
I did lose access to one picture, a picture of two kids in an inner tube, that was going to be in Radiant Identities. I had permission to use it in my first book, but when the child on the left [turned] 14, [she became] very self-conscious about the fact that her bathing suit is a little low in the picture. She declined to give permission for its publication, which really thunderstruck me because it’s such a sweet picture. But that’s who she is and so it won’t be published, no question about it. That’s what she wants; that’s what she gets, no argument. That’s just how I’ve always worked.
When I started doing my work years ago, I had doubts as to whether the informed consent question was answerable. But empirically I’ve come to understand that my photographs really don’t do any harm. The way I found that out is by virtue of the fact that a huge number of people that I’ve photographed over the years have now come of age and are able to speak in adult voices about the process. What they’re saying is unanimous — I don’t have any dissenting voices — which is that they love the pictures. They’re really pleased that they exist, and they want me to photograph their kids. If these people felt the least bit victimized by [the process of being photographed], they wouldn’t be having me do the same thing to their own kids.
Some of these people were bugged by the FBI in the worst imaginable way. They were interviewed very, very aggressively. Yet, they’re all still willing to let me take their pictures; they think the FBI was completely full of it.
One of the things that a lot of people who look at photographs don’t understand, especially in terms of my work, is that 98% of the work that goes into making a picture has to do with the social work you do before a camera comes out. I spend a huge amount of time with the families that I photograph. I’m very involved with their lives. I know a lot about them. I could tell you long stories about these people, some of the tough things that have happened in their lives, the triumphs, the tragedies, the whole thing. It’s only way into that process that I ever start taking any pictures. That relationship has to exist [first].
Years ago, as a naive photographer, I’d see a pretty face and want to take a picture. Empirically, over a long period of time, I learned that pretty faces were just not enough, not even remotely enough. There has to be somebody home behind the pretty eyes, somebody with whom I would want to spend substantive amounts of time over a period of decades, bring them into the family, as it were. Somebody who’s vapid and vain and arrogant is just no fun to hang around with, so why would I ever want a picture of them?
These days I very rarely approach new people. Mostly people come to me, or I photograph the friends of people that I’ve photographed. If I add anybody, it’s part of a larger family network, as it were. [But] it’s extremely rare for me to begin with somebody entirely new, just because the social work of adding on a whole new family takes that much more time.
STEINBERG: People are always concerned about possible negative effects on the kids of being photographed. But it also seems to me that the results could…
STURGES: …be beneficial. I can give you one very specific story about that that I like a lot.
There’s a picture in my first book, The Last Days of Summer, called “Nicole G,” of a very long-legged German girl. This girl was tall, practically from birth. She had long, long legs, so much so that she often walked with a stoop because she was embarrassed by how tall she was. She’s an absolute knockout, a beautiful girl, but she never thought so because she was embarrassed about being so big; she felt like an elephant.
I always loved how she looked and I like the family a lot. The father is a major in the German army who just worships his kids. To him, they are gods descended to earth. He doesn’t overindulge them — he is very smart about how he has raised them — but he loves them so much that it is amazing. The mother is wonderful too. It is just a family with a lot of love in it.
Well, the father agonized over the fact that Nicole hated herself, hated how she looked, because he thought that she was the most beautiful young girl in the history of civilization, as parents are wont to do. Then one afternoon I had a shoot, the year after the picture in the book was taken, where I worked with a bunch of tidal pools. I had beautiful light, the family was in a great mood, and Nicole was in a superb place in her transit through life. I gave her a lot of reinforcement as I worked, telling her repeatedly — it was absolutely true — that she was doing beautiful things. It was really fun, and I took a lot of really good pictures.
It was very very high, very zen-like, in a very elevated place. I made nothing but good pictures. In basketball terms, you’d say I was in the zone. I couldn’t miss. Nicole was being just magnificent. Everything she did had grace in it. She couldn’t sit down and pick her nose without it being beautiful. And she was normally kind of angular, because of how long her legs and her arms were.
That evening, as I was leaving, Dieter, the father, came over just as I was going to get into the car. He had tears in his eyes. He gave me a great big kiss, which I’m not that used to receiving from men. And he said, “Jock, Nicole has just for the first time in her life told me that she thinks she’s pretty.”
That afternoon, for her, was what the French call a date changé. It was a changing point for her. Her sense of self and self-esteem changed dramatically that afternoon, and I felt absolutely ecstatic to have been part of that.
STEINBERG: Another photographer I know who has worked with teenagers and young women, says that sometimes he’s concerned that he may be leading these people in a difficult direction because they get so much into how they look that they can then get into the whole glamor model thing.
STURGES: I’ve only once had a model go in that direction, and she was on her way there before I met her, a remarkably narcissistic human being. The principal way I work is that I tell people not to move when they’re doing something that I like. It’s almost always something improbable, which is to say not a glamor pose, not the arms behind the head, not that kind of thing. The message is that who you are naturally is what I like the best. Almost always, I’ll get my best pictures when everybody thinks the shoot’s done. I’ll spend five or six hours at the beach with people, and when they think I’m all out of film they really relax and I get my good pictures. Hopefully the message is that you’re most admirable when you’re human, that you don’t have to pose and put on make-up and be glamorous.
No two people take on the information of being admirable and being admired in the same way. I can’t begin to know the psychological ramifications of what I do in the long run. I won’t live long enough. It may be that the most important ramifications of what I do will come when my models are in their 60s and 70s, when they look very different from the way they look in the pictures now, when they will have the photographs as a reminder. It may be that that reminder will be painful. I hope not. I hope they can continue to accept themselves and their bodies as beautiful as they change and grow.
Some of the people that I photographed as sticks have become much more voluptuous, much rounder, in some cases dramatically so, and I think they’re even more beautiful. Some are in their 30s now and their bodies are beginning to obey gravity’s halcyon call, and I think they’re more beautiful because now they’re the origins of other people, of children themselves. Their beauty is flowing back into their own children. To me that illuminates them and illuminates the children as well. It’s just all part of the same circle.
Physical beauty is such a strange thing. homo sapiens happens to think that certain things are beautiful. [People in] different cultures think [different] things are beautiful. The Japanese used to paint their teeth black. There will never be any end to the variations on what we find aesthetically appealing. But the fact that we have an aesthetic sense is part of what separates us from the lower animals. There’s no evidence that any other animals have any interest in aesthetics at all. But homo sapiens does, always has, and always will.
STEINBERG: Obviously your own pursuit of beauty has a lot to do with youth. So what is it about young people that you find so beautiful?
STURGES: There’s line, there’s androgyny, there’s a lot of different things. I’ve undone the psychological puzzle that is me, and it’s not a very complex one. I was sent away to boarding schools when I was very, very young and it wasn’t a lot of fun. So I’m particularly fascinated by that age, the age of my own traumatization, as it were.
STEINBERG: I didn’t mean the psychoanalysis of it. I meant what is about these people that really grabs you. You could be photographing 40-year-old people, or 70-year-old people….
STURGES: Well, beyond what I’ve just said, about what it was that lit the fuse on this work, I’m not really that worried about knowing.
STEINBERG: I don’t mean what it is about you.
STURGES: I’m letting you know why it is I like what I like.
STEINBERG: But what is it you like?
STURGES: It’s so different every time, because it evolves. I’m working with a lot of people now who are considerably older than I used to work with, because a lot of these kids have literally drawn me up through their lives. I’ve come to understand that they’re even more interesting company and more interesting to photograph — they’re more interestingly complex — when they’re older, when they’re in their early 20s and starting to get involved in relationships that may result in children.
When I enter a room, there’s always a face or two that will stop me. Everything else is invisible to me; I don’t see the other people that are there. There’s a certain purity of line. You see the same obsession taken almost to the point of kitsch, in the English school of painting, the pre-Raphaelites. The best of pre-Raphaelite painting is just divine — very, very pure. You see it in Botticelli, and then you see it in a very different, bitter, beautiful form in the work of my favorite painter, Igon Schuyla.
STEINBERG: So it’s a matter of line and form for you? Is there something about the person?
STURGES: There’s ballet in it; 15 years of ballet. For me, the ideal model is somebody who is full of energy and generous and warm — who is engaged, and engaging. Someone who has pretty line, clear line, and who is also at peace with herself, that is to say unselfconscious and delighted to be the physical animal that he or she is.
STEINBERG: Is this something we lose when we get older?
STURGES: No, it just changes. It depends on what society does to people, but it does change. It becomes something larger. In some cases, because society can be a searing influence, it’s burned out.
STEINBERG: Ron Raffaelli, who has also done a lot of photography of young people, talks very explicitly about the sense of innocence, the way of being in your body before you associate it with sexuality and therefore with being “bad,” that he finds stunning. He just loves the way young people inhabit their bodies.
STURGES: Lewis Carroll made a similar distinction. He thought that children were absolutely beautiful before puberty, but after, they were essentially lost, corrupted by the emergence of sexuality. I’ve never been able to identify with that perception because to me the people are the same people. That child remains within. The innocence is there, it just takes on a different guise. The people who I most like to photograph, the people who have been “great models” for me, are the ones who have maintained and nurtured that innocence throughout their lives. Marine, the girl on the cover of my book, is an immensely warm, impulsive, spontaneous human being who acts today, at 20, just the way she did when she was seven. Her mother, who’s in her 40s, is the same way. The last time I was visiting them in central France, Marine and her mother ran the entire length of the train platform, waving goodbye to the train I was on. Their faces were full of color and joy. It’s possible to be that way [throughout your life]. That loss, that fall if you will, is not inevitable. I hope that my photography can become a small engine in the lives of people as they undergo these transitions, to help preserve the purity that’s always there.
For me, there’s [also] an innocence and a beauty that returns to women, however much it might have been eclipsed by social burdens, when they become pregnant and have their own children. It’s so beautiful that it often makes me cry. I get totally romantic and ridiculous.
STEINBERG: Do you photograph pregnant women?
STURGES: I’ve done a little. I want to do more. What I’m beginning to do is photograph the kids I’ve photographed as they become pregnant. One of the reasons I haven’t [done] more is because it so awes me that the last thing I think about is taking a picture of it. It feels like walking in church with loud shoes, to take a camera into that place.
STEINBERG: Can you give a picture of how you work with people, your process? Are you directive?
STURGES: If I’ve been working with a family for years, it’s very different from when I’m working with somebody for the first time. When I’m working with people for the first time, I always tell them that I have no expectations of taking any good pictures. Otherwise they’re going to feel awkward, self-conscious; they’re going to want to know what to do with their hands. It usually takes a couple of shoots before we get past that.
I shoot a lot of pictures that I consider pictures I have to take to get to the pictures I want to take. I have to deal with people’s preconceptions about how one is photographed. If someone comes to take your picture, you stand there and you pose and you smile, that kind of thing. After a while, people will be taking a break and I’ll say, “Don’t move,” and get a good picture, when they really aren’t thinking about it.
The less I direct, the better. People who pose models are really not paying attention to what’s beautiful about our species, because poses by definition are limited to the archetypes in our head about how someone should look in a picture. All of which has very little to do, unfortunately, with how we are. People do the most beautiful things imaginable; the less I direct the better.
For me an ideal shoot is with people I’ve worked with for a long time. We’ll go to a beach or we’ll go to a river and we’ll spend days there. I interrupt nothing. If people want to go swim, they go swim. If they want to come back, they come back. If they want to leave with their boyfriends, they leave with their boyfriends. If their boyfriends want to be there, if they want to listen to the radio, whatever, I say nothing. I might change a little something, I might turn a head in a larger composition, or change the direction of eyes. Once in a while I’ll say, “Don’t move,” and I’ll quickly take a picture. The best photographs always come that way. It’s what’s the least manipulated and owes the most, therefore, to what the people themselves have done. All the art in my work dwells in the subjects; it’s all theirs. It’s not made up by me; I ain’t that smart.
May 25, 1994
Copyright © 1994 David Steinberg
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