Jock Sturges' latest book, Notes (Aperture, 2004), is both an appealing social document and an informative guide to his artistic methods. If the claim that he is `deeply interested in the lives of the people in my pictures' is to be taken seriously, then thinking about Sturges' images should involve thinking about naturism and the kinds of people who are naturists.
Australian poet Les Murray remarks that public nudity in Western cultures is `relaxed as exam time', but some such cultures do nudity better than others and attain genuine relaxation. I have always thought Australia with its Mediterranean climate and vast tracts of white beaches had great nudist potential, but my country had the misfortune to be born English. It has grown up with the general aspect of the working-class Pommy migrant made good, raised in cleaner air and living on a larger suburban block than was available `back home', more of a brash, materialist loudmouth than its native cousins, but still caught in all of their mental shackles.
America was born English too - a virulent, Puritanical strain of it - and in the text of Notes it is fascinating to read Sturges on his early life in that country, which he sums up as `a long tunnel of single-sex experience [at school and in the military] and social deprivation. . . . While I was young and my work was new, it was about hormones and photography.'
My own visit to one of France's largest nude beaches a few years ago confirmed my intuition that nakedness needn't be a big deal. This was middle-class Europe with its clothes off. One of my most electric memories of that week of mass strutting, playing, snoozing and posing nude under a heavy sun was of a father and his young adolescent son who jumped in the surf for a few minutes on a cool and windy morning. The vigorous, beautiful boy then marched out of the grey water, followed by his beer-bellied dad, picked up his towel and the pair drove away into an ordinary summer day. This earthiness could be achieved on beaches anywhere, but a certain lightness of being, having nothing to do with moral goodness, is necessary first.
The vitality and eroticism of the nudist ethos is captured in the best of Sturges' photographs. Photographed badly enough, naked people can turn out like slabs of raw meat or illustrations for a medical treatise, so there is much to admire in terms of practical skill in Notes, like all of Sturges' books. Diffused and directed light, even in outdoor settings, seems to be the photographer's most important tool. Notes shows clearly how the stiffness and exaggerated solemnity of the typical Sturges picture turns out to be a result of his method, which begins with polaroids taken from life as it is lived by his friends and family on nude beaches each summer, and ends in careful reconstructions of a model's certain gesture or stance. Yet as is so often the case in photography, the small, contrasty, from-the-hip colour polaroid is frequently more interesting than the large, high-definition, severely monochrome reconstruction that counts as the finished article. It seems to me an inherently difficult task to do a `decisive moment' over again.
Sturges' more recent work in colour is also represented in Notes. The finest example of these is the beautifully judged `Michelle, Montalivet, France, 2001', which loses none of his trademark serenity in the heat of its colour. In that image, a soft reflected mother-of-pearl - muted tones of grey-green, pink and purple from the girl's bedding - surrounds a young girl as she sits as quietly as a thinking buddha, bringing the heavy orangey colour of her naked skin into the compositional as well as subjective foreground. The image brings to mind curious analogies. After looking at it several times I remembered the stricken, lank-haired girl of Edvard Munch's Puberty; the prepubescent subject of `Michelle' is a much-lightened version of the Munch who is unlikely, when her own puberty comes, to suffer in the same way.
Sometimes, Sturges' books carry a tone of misplaced moralism or academicism. He seems to find it necessary to dress his models' actual nakedness with metaphysical justifications. In Notes a simple picture of a boy and girl holding hands (`Eva and Thomas, La Jenny, France 2002') is glossed at length with the photographer's comment that the scene is `Breugel-esque'. What possible connection the work of a sixteenth-century painter might have with the post-industrial leisure world of a nude beach is hard for me to see. Breughel's characters were never painted in such isolated detail and his most famous pictures are bucolic panoramas of villages in the dark of winter. It's significant that boys attract more of this commentary than girls. There are several images of boys in Notes, and their very inclusion is noteworthy since male nudity is such a taboo subject in English-speaking societies, no doubt because of the erotic excitement it arouses. Boys are never treated by Sturges in quite the same way as girls. Girls are taken as graceful and fascinating and sensual in themselves, but boys are just Breughel-esque, or interesting because they look like Michelangelo's David, or academic examples of Sturges' preferred photographic technique. They deserve to be valued for being beautiful too.
Academic or metaphysical interpretations of Sturges are not wrong, but unnecessary; naked bodies, sunlight and a beach are about as elemental as things get, and it is this bareness we find startling and interesting and full of sensual appeal, whether male or female.
So for all the liberating joie-de-vivre of Notes, a puritan strain remains, albeit mostly in the descriptive texts. I think this is a presently unavoidable outcome of having Americans write about being naked. The images themselves become silly with this moralism at times, too, with figures striving for a waxwork-like ideality. The collection in Notes is interesting as a document of a well-known artist's philosophy and technique and, by showing a world of middle-class naked people enjoying themselves, Sturges' work remains an important document from a sociohistorical point of view - his images demonstrate to puritan cultures that it is possible, given education and money enough for a long holiday each year, to cast off morals and remain a good person.
`It has taken two thousand years,' wrote Albert Camus in one of his own notebooks, `for us once again to be able to show the body naked on the beaches . . . [I]t has recovered its place in our customs.' He was writing more than a decade before the marshy beaches of Cap d'Agde in the south of France were drained and gradually developed into a seasonal nudist `city' of happy thousands. How lucky we are that a photographer of Sturges' abilities has the courage and the visual skill to document a world delightfully removed from, yet still a part of, the permanently clothed world in which most of us have chosen to live.