Jock Sturges: Portraits Over Time

at Lallak + Tom, through April 18

Terry Evans: Matfield Green

at Ehlers Caudill, through April 25

Eric Weeks: Desire and Despair

at Schneider, through April 18

By Fred Camper

In 1990, when San Francisco photographer Jock Sturges had been photographing nude adults and children for more than a decade and a few years after passage of the federal “kiddie porn” law, FBI agents seized all of his equipment and many thousands of negatives. A year later no charges had been filed against him, and Sturges went to court to get his possessions back. Today a federal investigation supposedly continues, and several states have taken Barnes & Noble to court, arguing that Sturges’s books must be kept away from children.

While I haven’t seen prints of all the seized negatives, the 30 prints now at Lallak + Tom, the prints I’ve seen in other shows, and the photos in Sturges’s three books make me wonder what’s got everyone so excited. Adults and children are shown nude. But nothing about their poses or Sturges’s compositions calls attention to their genitals, and some subjects hide their pubic regions with a strategically placed hand, leaf, or cloth. Sturges writes in one of his books that early in his career he sometimes asked his subjects to undress, but he soon began simply photographing them as they were, dressed or not. If Sturges’s photographs constitute “lascivious exhibition,” which federal law prohibits, then all depictions of nude children are lascivious.

If Sturges is not a pornographer, what is he doing? Viewing the photographs in his books and in the Lallak + Tom show, which concentrates on work from the 90s, one immediately notices that however natural and unmanipulated his photographs may be, he has made certain choices. There are lots of young women and girls, but hardly any women who appear to be over 40. Everyone is either pretty or beautiful. Hardly anyone is overweight–or for that matter underweight. While Sturges writes that “what is most beautiful about people has to do with who they are naturally,” he seems to have excluded, for instance, women whose breasts have begun to sag. In the exhibit there are no men or teen males and only a few prepubescent boys. In short, Sturges is wandering about in a fairly standard heterosexual-male fantasy–in which there are lots of pretty naked girls who are nude because they want to be and in which the occasional male crotch is always the unthreatening hairless one of a young boy.

Born in New York City in 1947 and having got an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1985, Sturges has long been photographing at a “naturist” beach in Montalivet, France. “‘Naturists,’ as opposed to American ‘nudists,'” he writes, “wear whatever comes naturally,” including clothes. Using an eight-by-ten view camera and a reflector, he photographs his subjects in whatever they are or aren’t wearing, often following families for years.

Sturges may not be exploiting any of his subjects individually, but the sum of a group of his photos is unmistakably erotic–and the naturalness of the poses in some ways heightens the eroticism. In some photos the women and girls seem strong–choosing how to stand and confronting the camera’s gaze with their own. In others their faces are barely visible, and the camera seems to look them over freely. This is a show of strong women who don’t mind if you look at them–but who also don’t mind if you spy on them. As het male fantasies go, that’s hard to top.

None of this would be a problem aesthetically if the dual nature of these photos were more precisely articulated. Instead they settle into an uneasy balance, an almost weird combination of documentation and sensuality. Sturges pretends to objective naturalness while going not only for specific models but specific compositions. A camera that could render every grain of sand as precisely as every strand of hair is most often used to blur the background, isolating the subjects from their environs. His direct, head-on shooting suggests the candidness of a snapshot, yet his lighting is subtle and his printing exquisite–and the results are palpably sensual, the curving grays of his subjects’ skin subtle and varied enough to suggest three dimensions. A neat trick, but to what end?

I was happiest with those pictures in which the subjects return the camera’s gaze. The eight women in Alice, Alice, Nadia, Bettina, Tracey, Camille, Axelle et Sophie; Montalivet, France, 1996 stand before us in different poses. Two are nude, others have wrapped blankets around their waists, one wears a blouse with no skirt. Some look at the camera, some look at each other. It seems that each has freely chosen her pose, and the uniqueness of each is preserved. In Misty et Mylene; Zurich, Switzerland, 1997 Mylene is seated, her eyes closed as if napping; she’s allowing us to view her voyeuristically. But a standing Misty, her hands on Mylene’s shoulders, stares at us forcefully, as if to protect Mylene from eyes that search too hard. The girl in Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1997 crouches on a rock in profile, and we see mostly her arms and legs as she twists her head to face us. But while the rock and the foam around it are in sharp focus, the background is not, which isolates her figure almost as if she were a fashion model. However natural this pose may have felt to the girl, it’s been much used in erotic art.

Other shots also seem to draw, accidentally or not, on the long history of erotic imagery of nude women. Katja am Strand; Montalivet, France, 1991 shows five women lying on the sand at a diagonal to the frame. Some are on their backs, others on their stomachs–but only one face is visible. The almost geometric arrangement of bodies may recall a famous scene in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, but it also appeals to fantasy. In Misty Dawn and Christina; Northern California, 1996 Misty lies with her head resting on the lap of a seated Christina. Misty is nude, Christina clothed–which alone causes a bit of a frisson–and they’re sitting on and in front of huge old pieces of machinery (the word “Caterpillar” is visible in the background). The combination of Misty’s lithe white body and the dark metal hulks reminded me of a story that ran in the 60s in the Evergreen Review about two women who supposedly lived in an auto junkyard and every month randomly called men in the phone book for sex; the story was well illustrated with nudes set against old cars.

I have no objection to artists creating erotic images of the women they desire. Edward Weston’s great nudes are a bit frightening in the way they portray his female lovers as if they were plants or rocks; they are also beautiful because of the spectacular way he creates tonal rhythms that resonate throughout unified compositions, becoming amazing visions of humans integrated with the land. Weston’s aggressive formalism, his objectifying erotic eye, and his tying of humans to nature are all precisely interwoven. By contrast, Sturges’s shots can’t decide whether they’re the natural documents they pretend to be or tone poems of skin grays that express the artist’s desire. He gives us a little of both, but so poorly articulated that in the end we wind up with almost nothing.

The incompletely realized halves of Sturges’s project–the wish to document what is and the impulse to make photographs that are wholly self-expressive–are separately realized in two shows by lesser known but far finer photographers. Terry Evans, born in 1944 in Kansas City, Missouri, lived most of her life in Kansas but is now a Chicagoan. In her show at Ehlers Caudill Gallery, she’s represented by 30 works, most of the tiny community of Matfield Green, Kansas. Here the documentary impulse is realized with remarkable purity. Photographing mostly houses, empty rooms, and depopulated landscapes, Evans has stripped the rhetoric of desire from these images. She uses photographic style not to express her inner self but to enhance and deepen the way we see the physical world.

Bedroom, Matfield Green, July 12, 1991 shows a spare room with peeling wallpaper and a tapered ceiling whose diagonals match the peaked door in the center. While Sturges centers on people in the foreground–people the viewer is meant to want to look at–Evans reveals the recessive qualities of this empty room. Yet there’s nothing bleak about it; the image is a study in almost Vermeer-ish whites. We sense the absence of those who once lived here and imagine they might return again. In Turkey Vultures, Ellsworth County, Kansas, August 16, 1992 one first notices the oddly off-balance tilt to this prairie landscape, the land rising irregularly to the right, where a country road crosses the frame. This might seem a bit mannered to Chicagoans, but it’s an accurate depiction of the odd tilts of the Kansas prairie.

Evans’s thinking about the prairie has long been influenced by her friend Wes Jackson, a plant geneticist who founded the Land Institute, which Evans describes as seeking “a natural system of agriculture–using the prairie ecosystem as a model to figure out how to have polycultural seed-producing perennial grains.” The institute’s Rural Community Studies Program is headquartered in Matfield Green, a town of about 100, where much of the surrounding land has never been farmed. Four images hung together show the same small house over the years: it’s a post office, a feed store, a railroad office, and a vacant building. Evans frames the shots almost identically, with the house at the center. But it’s too modest a building to be a likely object of desire, and the successive views shift one’s focus from the building to its changing uses and to the changes in the community they imply. Sturges too photographs his subjects across the years, but his juxtapositions caused me to notice such things as how Misty Dawn seemed even sexier with shorter hair.

Evans has included a few portraits–warmly humanist documents that are also the product of a steady yet generous eye. In June & Cyrus Talkington, Matfield Green, 1996 we see a boy and his grandfather, longtime residents of the community, standing together against an autumnal landscape otherwise devoid of human signs; there appears to be nothing for them to do. The show also includes seven landscape diptychs, with adjacent views of a locale mounted side by side. Sometimes the views don’t match up exactly, and the slight skewing or overlap reminds one that a photograph is inherently incomplete, that there’s always more to a scene than it can contain. Matfield Green, Dec. 1993 shows an older brick building on the left, a newer one on the right in front of a playground, and a lot of empty lawn in between. These are the town’s former school buildings; the newer one, once an elementary school, is now owned by the Land Institute. A now-demolished high school occupied much of the space between them. Yet Evans never lets her camera wax nostalgic over these losses; instead her unblinking eye simply confronts them. It’s up to us to see the emptiness as loss–or as a sign of hope. Land returning to nature isn’t any more barren than an abandoned but usable room.

Eric Weeks’s 12 large color prints at Schneider represent the antidocumentary end of the photographic spectrum, a world in which the photographer feels free to reshape everything to suit his own expression and desire–the hidden, imperfectly articulated subtext behind Sturges’s work. However, there’s little ambiguity about what Weeks is doing; I correctly guessed that these images were mostly staged. He makes sketches, he takes Polaroids of his setup, he arranges and rearranges lighting, props, and figures before taking the final image. Yet part of what makes his work interesting is that he achieves an off-balance, snapshotlike quality. Requiem shows a mousetrap on the edge of a stove with a trapped mouse, but a burner behind it is on, the blue flame slightly out of focus. Why is it on? Perhaps for the same reason a man seen only at crotch level is tying two ropes together in Tying a Sheet Bend: to suggest an incomplete narrative whose beginning and ending we cannot know. In this sense Weeks is truer to the actual snapshot–snatching a moment from the larger flow that might explain it–than Sturges with his fake candid portraits. Weeks gives us fragments of a world we can’t fully understand, a maze of objects amid which we stumble about half blind. The sultry woman in a red dress lives up to the title The Seductress, but her hand is on a doorknob. She appears to be leaving, yet why does she look back so invitingly?

A 32-year-old New Yorker who supports himself with commercial work, Weeks dates his setup photos only to 1994 and cites as influences the uses of light by painters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Georges de La Tour. Weeks may also have been influenced by these old masters in his attention to the whole image. For instance, the contrast between the blue flame and the tan mousetrap within Requiem’s recessive diagonal space places them in dynamic tension with each other. Yet his main theme–the inability to see completely–is thoroughly modern.

In Observations From Beneath My Bed a bare-chested Weeks lies on the floor gazing up, apparently at a board in his bed’s frame. “I’m under my bed, lying in the dust of the past, looking up at what’s gone on above in the last 15 years,” he told me. Has the “seductress” already left him? There’s something odd about the combination of his wire-rimmed glasses and the intentness of his gaze: he looks up studiously, bookishly, but one can’t believe the board will reveal anything. These moving little visual poems about the eye’s failures contrast with Sturges’s myths about its successes. In Weeks’s The Outsider a man looks in through a window framed by curtains; one hand cups his eyes, emphasizing his searching gaze, the other is pressed flat against the glass, suggesting that he can’t come into the room. The picture window in Thursday Afternoon, 1997 gives one a view of tropical vegetation framing the sea below–the kind one expects to find at a posh resort. But the entire scene is out of focus–with the exception of the rain that streaks the glass. The truth of these works is one modernism has long acknowledged but current artists seem to have forgotten: visual media are not transparent windows on the world, but always assert their own nature and interfere with whatever we attempt to see.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Fanny: Montalivet, France, 1997” by Jock Sturges; “Observations from Beneath My Bed” by Eric Weeks; “Bedroom, Matfield Green, July 12, 1991” by Terry Evans.