Art isn't easy," as the Stephen Sondheim song goes. It certainly hasn't been easy for the California photographer Jock Sturges, whose specialty is nudes.
In 1990, when the ground was still shaking from the right-wing uproar over the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, Sturges was hit by an aftershock. A photo processing lab that printed some of his color negatives alerted the FBI that Sturges' work included pictures of nude children. The FBI then raided Sturges' San Francisco studio and seized his negatives and equipment. Fortunately for Sturges, artists and city officials—as well as the parents of his subjects—rallied to his defense, insisting that Sturges was a serious photographer, not a pornographer. A federal grand jury couldn't understand what the fuss was about either. After looking at the photographs, they refused to bring charges.
Because it doesn't include the pictures that led to the raid, this book won't settle any questions about the FBI's qualifications as art critics. But even Jesse Helms couldn't be put out much by the wistful black-and-white portraits of kids, teens and adults that are here. Most of them were taken on and around clothes-optional "naturist" beaches in California and France. Sturges seems to find no one at such places but handsome families who must save a fortune on clothing bills or fine-boned young girls with Challenging expressions.
But art isn't easy. Because Sturges may have been a victim of law enforcement overkill doesn't also make him a photographer who ranks with the best. Sally Mann's sudden plunges into the deep water of family relations, Lee Friedlander's dead-sure eye for the accumulated quirks that we call personality—you won't find them in these pages. You will find something to remind you of the gauzy, sun-dappled boys and girls of 19th-century photography, here trying on the fetching moods of a 20th-century fashion ad campaign. Whether wrapped in a towel or just some sunscreen, nearly all of Sturges' people are grave, well-formed and poetic. Best to think of his world as an inviting fiction: one photographer's Eden, where a little knowledge doesn't get you expelled from the garden. (Aperture, $35)