Copyright Jock Sturges 1991 published by Aperture
This review of Jock Sturges’s first photobook, The Last Day of Summer, published by Aperture in 1991, is an introduction to his many photobooks. This photobook, his first, is now nearing twenty years in print.
As part of the background story, one social element that Sturges shares with Sally Mann and David Hamilton is his subject matter; nude children, specifically young girls who are just at or recently past puberty and the subsequent legal actions by groups of citizens and court officials to prosecute these photographers for child pornography in the United States and United Kingdom. The legal actions against the three occurred during the period from 1971 to 1991 (and I guess later), and with Hamilton in the United Kingdom, into the 21st century. These moralist legal actions against photographers has a long history in both the US and UK.
How each of these three photographers photographed their subjects varies widely, with Hamilton on one side with his soft focus and dreamy interpretations and Mann on the other end, in a very documentary, straight style of her young children, with Sturges in a similar straight photographic style to Mann’s photographs, but closer to a style of classic environmental portraiture. I am using the word “style” in describing these photographer’s processes in the broadest sense. Interestingly, while working on the research of Sturges’s photobooks, I still find that some booksellers still categorize Sturges’s photobooks as “erotic”, although this is probably a sales tactic, but still underlies the continuing issues within the US as to the acceptance of frontal nude photographs of young girls who are moving through the late stages of puberty.
In this first photobook, the location of Sturges’s portraits varies widely, from Northern California, American Atlantic coast and the coastal beaches of Southern France. As apparent in the title, the time of year at which the photographs are made appears to be in the late summer, and all of them out-of-doors, and most appear to be made either early or later in the day. This is a series of environmental portraits of his friends and their families, mostly inclusive of their children of whom most are practicing naturalist, in which clothing is optional.
As I stated earlier, I consider Sturges an environmental portrait photographer. His primary focus and framing is the individual or groups of individuals before him with the environmental landscape secondary. Most of the time the inclusion of any trace of “place” provides only a hint of an external context to the actual setting and for the most part is immaterial to his photograph. His subject is usually centered and inclusive within the frame and occasionally when photographing large groups, they will extend out of the frame. His subjects usually have direct eye contact with his lens, but occasionally they have closed their eyes in a peaceful and meditative pose.
In discussing his methodology in an interview with John Paul Caponigro (July/August 1998 issue of View Camera magazine), Sturges states: “But what happens over time is that a lot of the people whom I enjoy photographing a lot, that I’ve been shooting for years, come to understand that there’s a certain kind of almost balletic elegance that I have a great tendency to like in photographs and they start doing this stuff on purpose. They sort of figure out what it takes to push my button. And so I turn around and they’re doing this long, stretched- out, elongated beautiful thing, and of course I make the photograph. They’ve, in a funny way, made me take that picture. They know that that’s what Jock likes. So that can go too far, sometimes. That can get to be a little bit too self conscious, on occasion. But very often it is actually quite beautiful, how people present themselves.”
Most of his subjects are not smiling or attempting to project an outward happy persona, but appear to be contemplative of where they are at the moment. I feel that their neutral facial appearance may result from the long duration that it takes for Sturges to set-up the large camera and his subjects may not realize that the moment of the exposure is occurring. Unlike being photographed by a photographer with an SLR camera, that as soon as the camera is brought to eye level, the photographic exposure probably occurs. The ambiguity of time coupled with the longer set up duration is a photographic process tool that Sturges takes full advantage of to maintain a sense of candidness.
It could also be argued that for a naturalist, there are few outward pretenses as to who they are, because it is plainly self-evident.
Due to the size, speed to set-up and ancillary lighting required for the use of his 8 x 10” view camera, his subject are fully aware of the photographers presence and the looming camera before them. They are equally participating in the photographic event. In 1991, and the few years before, it was the age of the 35mm autofocus point and shot camera, thus Sturges large camera may have lent a bit of mystery and magical presence.
I think that his photographs may indeed be possible due to his extended personal relationships that he has established over the many years with the extensive amount of time he is photographing his subjects with this equipment. I suspect that his subjects would come to expect to see Sturges with his bulky and awkward photographic equipment as it would be to see him au natural. It is part and parcel to his persona and I believe his subjects also come to expect that he will ask to photograph them in between the time they are enjoying the beach.
The photographs of the young Misty Dawn as she dresses up as a princess or a winged fairy I find delightful. She is caught momentarily in the childlike world of fantasy and wonder. When costumed as a fairy, perched on a pile of split wood, the backlit sunlight illuminating her fairy wings and costume, she looks directly at the camera. With her mouth just slightly open, it is difficult to know if she is about to say something, trying to maintain her concentration and balance or perhaps another alternative that we may never know.
Likewise when young Dawn is among her family and friends, they interact amongst themselves and occasional appear to be performing for the camera. Sturges has allowed Dawn to set the stage and amid the surrounding environment to help establish the narrative. Dawn in turn is very aware of the photographer and camera as she posses, looking directly into the lens. There is an immediacy and direct contact established between photographer, subject and viewer.
The photograph of Flore and Frederique on the beach in Montalivet France is another interaction between Sturges and his subjects that draws in the viewer. Both the young girl and whom we now know is her mother are both standing on a beach entirely within the pictorial frame, and Sturges is creating a subtle balance by positioning them on either side of the center of the photograph. Both subjects hold their arms and hands away from their sides in almost identical positions, with their weight placed on one hip such that it appears that two of them are extending their bodies toward each other in a non-verbal connection. Flore in the foreground is in sharp focus, while her mother Frederique is further away and slightly out of focus, symbolic of where Flore is both from and yet also moving towards. Flore is entirely focused on the photographer, while Frederique appears to intent upon watching her daughter, approving of the situation, but nevertheless watchful and diligent. The two of them represent the ongoing mother and daughter relationship, the daughter in the foreground, coming of age, the center of attention and the mother in the background, slightly out of focus, her presence known and every diligent and protective.
In another small group on the beach in France, Sturges has provided his most expansive landscape of the un-ending beach as a backdrop to the five young girls lounging on the sand in the foreground. The girls are loosely grouped and their bodies are placed such that form a ring among themselves. They are not making eye contact with the lens nor each other, appearing to be lost in thought. Their bodies do not touch each other except for the extending shadows which lightly makes contact, which is a symbolic connection between themselves. The combination of light and shadow almost abstracts the shape of their bodies on the beach and provides visual clues that this is probably towards the end of the day. Each of the girls has reclined on the sand with a slightly different position but the overall aesthetic effect is one of very balanced masses and weights within the pictorial frame.
His photographs do not seem to betray or take advantage of his subjects but reflects his interest in and attempts to understand them as friends and extension of his family. That they are occasionally nude while taking advantage of the good weather is immaterial. The parents enjoy the naturalist lifestyle and have instilled the same appreciation into their children, that spending time on a warm beach without clothes is just a natural and expected thing to do, without any fuss or other emotional baggage.
Children are also all about change, with growth occurring in body and mind, as it appears that they quickly evolve from young child to young adult. Who they are today is very fleeting. Their exterior body changes are more evident and symbolize more readily the persistent and relentless passage of time. As adults, the passage of time is not as readily evident within a short duration, from year to year, we are relatively unchanged.
About change, Sturges states in his Afterword; “Anytime I photograph a person, there is loss implicit in the image, because the next time I photograph them, they will have changed. A picture that succeeds in transfixing what is past somehow serves to imply and promise the future.”
As a viewer, we are also a voyeur in his naturalist landscape. Would we allow ourselves to go out into a public area entirely unclothed? To be seen for whom we are, to allow others to see the naked truth?
Sturges’s naturalist photograph’s has a forward connection to the photographic work of Mona Kuhn, who has photographed extensively at the same French coastal region concurrently as Stuges’s later work. In turn, Kuhn works with slightly older nude models to construct her pensive narratives. Although she started photographing with black and white like Sturges, she subsequently has moved to photographing with the color medium. Kuhn’s photographic methodologies and style also exhibit a greater fluidity than Sturges, who photographs almost exclusively with his 8 x 10” view camera.
Sturges has a keen sense of timing and the ability to entice his subjects, especially the children, to act out their fantasies, reveal themselves and to make photographic notes that capture their innocent and childlike interactions.
Sturges exposes his black and white negatives and subsequent develops the photographs with a modernistic tonality, with open and revealing shadows and the texture held in the highlights. The full tonal range of his photographs is further complemented by the nice Italian printing of the book.
The Last Day of Summer is the first of the nine Jock Sturges photobooks currently published, with four of his photobooks published by Aperture. This photobook is available in two versions, a large (11 ½” x 9 ½”) cloth bound with dust cover and a stiff-bound, with the first edition in 1991. The stiff cover edition of The Last Day of Summer has at least 10 printings over the period of 1991, 1992 and 1993 and the larger cloth cover edition had at least four printings. This quantity of printings is an indication of the popularity of Sturges photobooks, which has created a very financially and successful series of photobooks for Aperture and the other publishers. Sturges popularity is interestingly similar to the successful publications of David Hamilton’s soft focused photographs of nude young women earlier in 1971.
By Douglas Stockdale