Sturges 2

Sturges is often compared to Sally Mann, whose nude photographs of her own three children have attracted their share of controversy — "but Mann's photos reflect a parental gaze," these detractors contend, "while Sturges's photos are those of a man looking at someone else's daughters!" It's pretty clear from his work and from his public statements that Sturges is fascinated by women and consequently feels compelled to document the process by which they come to be.

Sturges, working in a still visual medium, captures the evolution of self through the physical: how his young people carry themselves, the slants of their hipbones, the looks in their eyes. My dream book would be a Jock Sturges monograph chronicling the childhood and adolescence of Echo and Molly Mockery, of Peggy and Kelly Kaylin, of September and April Young, of Daisy Warner and Rachel Monihan and Cat Nicholls and Hayley Kerensky and Siren Delaney. I know what they all say and know what they all do, but my visualization skills are sketchy enough that I haven't actually seen them grow up.

Of course, it doesn't help that Sturges's work is virtually the only place in our culture where the physical metamorphosis from child to adult plays out, on record, outside of a textile cocoon. Flip through a Jock Sturges book. "Hey, that's a naked person" quickly becomes "That's a person" — and other pictures one might happen upon elsewhere morph from "That's a person" to "That's a person hiding her body in clothing" or "That's a person's head, hands and a bunch of fabric." And that's an epiphany our entire culture direly needs to experience.

By presenting photographs of naked people, not as pictures of bodies to fantasize about, but as people to wonder about and watch grow over time, Sturges delivers eloquent testimony on behalf of naturism.

So Jock Sturges's work is an exploration of adolescence and a tribute to naturism — Narrative content — a moment captured in the story of a person's life, one of many moments delivered to us over the years — is a multiplicand; formal aesthetics is another. These photos are the opposite of objectifying.

Jock Sturges's latest release, New Work 1996-2000, is his fifth published monograph. His first two, The Last Day of Summer (1991) and Radiant Identities (1994), were published by Aperture of New York, emphasizing individual images and drawing attention away from the connections among them. Contrast this with the sequencing in Evolution of Grace (1994), published by Gakken of Japan:

Radiant Identities (excerpt) Evolution of Grace (excerpt)
Misty Dawn, 1991 Melanie, Alisa and Misty Dawn, 1981
Danielle, 1991 Misty Dawn, Christina and Alisa, 1988
Misty Dawn, 1991 Misty Dawn, 1988
Danielle, 1992 Misty Dawn and Alisa, 1991
Misty Dawn, 1992 Misty Dawn, 1991
Lenea, 1993 Misty Dawn, 1991
Marine, 1989 Alysha and Misty Dawn, 1992
Laurel, 1992 Misty Dawn, 1992
Brooke, 1992 Maia and Misty Dawn, 1992
Cécile, 1993 Misty Dawn, 1993
Arianne, 1991 Misty Dawn, 1993
Lidwine, 1988 Christina, Misty Dawn and Alisa, 1994
Nikki, 1993 Misty Dawn, 1994
Raphäelle, 1991 Misty Dawn, 1994

The Aperture collections hopscotch around from subject to subject and year to year; the Gakken concentrates on one subject at a time, following her from one year to the next. Luckily, it is the latter course that the eponymous monograph Jock Sturges (1996) takes. At over 200 pages, this is the definitive collection of Sturges's work up to 1995, with most every subject getting at least a three-photo sequence devoted to her and some of them — notably Misty Dawn, Minna, Marine, Pauline, and Bettina — receiving extended sequences carrying them from childhood to late adolescence (sometimes beyond) in carefully measured steps. And by acting as a keystone, this monograph (courtesy of the Swiss publisher Scalo) adds retroactive value to the earlier ones, indicating where the scattered photos from earlier volumes need to be placed to extend the sequence: the Misty Dawn photos in Summer and Identities undergo an alchemical transformation from interesting pictures scattered among some less interesting ones of other people from roughly the same period into critical pieces of the Misty Dawn cycle that just happen to have been segregated into different volumes. The Scalo collection also brings together some of the series Sturges has done using the same model in the same place with a similar pose, reducing the variables to the point that the viewer can't help but zero in on the delta: what's different? This is The Question, after all — what's identity? What stays the same over time and what's evanescent? Consider a pair of images of Misty Dawn stretched out on an abandoned construction vehicle, a Caterpillar D7, the first from 1988 (age 8 or 9), the second from 1995 (age 15ish). Look at her right hand. In 1988 it's relaxed, dangling loosely, her wrist resting on her hip; in 1995 it's artificially posed, betraying a tenseness in dramatic contrast to the placidity of the first picture. (Of course, the fact that her eyes are closed in the second photo certainly doesn't detract from the impression that she's less open to the viewer this time around.) There's a similar twinning between a 1991 image of Misty Dawn in Evolution, knee-deep in a river, likely a fork of the Salmon, arms loose at her sides, hair a wild, choppy tangle, and a 1995 image from Sturges of her knee-deep in the same river, hair just so, arms clenched tightly behind her back, scowling up at the lens.

New Work hews much more closely to the model of its immediate predecessor — this is also a Scalo book, and they seem to have a handle on what works. Each subject's pictures are grouped together and arranged chronologically. There is also a set of eight color pictures that are absolutely gorgeous, the palettes just heartbreakingly lovely.

But the most noteworthy thing about New Work 1996-2000 is simply this: Sturges's cast is all grown up. His girls are now women in their late teens and twenties, and the issues that characterized Sturges's work in the period covered by his earlier volumes have mostly been resolved. (Just to touch on a few of them quickly: there's androgyny, with some girls identifiable as girls when they're specks in the deep background, and others who look so boyish as to prompt double-takes; one picture of Marine, so obviously a boy even with her primarily sexual characteristics in plain view, gave me the confidence to declare authoritatively that Echo Mockery's hockey team had no idea she was a girl — and yet Marine herself a couple years later looks more like Peggy Kaylin than not. Then there are the first and second derivatives of adolescence; if adolescence is a transition, what do we call the transition to it? Look at the cover of Radiant Identities: Misty Dawn hasn't started developing yet, no not quite yet, but somehow we know that she's going to start in about four seconds. How? And the divergent paths of adolescence, Misty Dawn coltish long after puberty, Christina wearing a woman's shape long before it... New Work is not an exploration of adolescence, but a celebration of adolescence successfully navigated. Take Misty Dawn, back on the Caterpillar D7 in 1999, no longer coltish, no longer tense and scowling, no longer trying to look like a badass — she doesn't have to, because at this point she radiates such effortless strength and power that any playacting would be counterproductive. Thus endeth the springtime of her life and beginneth the summer. And meanwhile, many pages feature one Adèle, not yet born at the time of previous installments of Sturges's work; perhaps her adolescence will be the focus of a sequence in Jock Sturges's New Work 2008-2012. Time will tell, and Sturges will assist in the telling.