Jock Sturges and David Hamilton: two different ways of photographing young women

On International Women’s Day it is interesting to reflect again on the way women are depicted in both art and photography.

The biblical heroine Susannah has been portrayed and sexualised since the Renaissance and is an excellent example of changing societal and artistic attitudes towards women. Her story is told in the book of Daniel. She was bathing in her garden and a group of elders is watching. 
They tell her unless she has sex with them, they will accuse her of adultery, the penalty for which is death stoning. She refuses and is tried. Daniel intervenes the in the trial and she is acquitted. The elders were stoned (in the bad way). Because the story involves her naked in her garden, it is excellent combination of biblical, which made its artistic representation acceptable, and the erotic, which made it interesting.

Alessandro Allori’s is probably the most erotic of the Renaissance versions.

More modern versions such, as those by Samsonov, show Susanna as a far more ambiguous figure. She is less the victim and more a participant, albeit unwilling, but her role has certainly changed.

For my commentary see Susannah: from biblical heroine to pop pornstar

Two modern photographers who, in many ways typify provide changing attitudes towards women, in both cases towards young women, are David Hamilton and Jock Sturges.

I have written extensively and often critically on David Hamilton.

With the storm of controversy surrounding the suicide of David Hamilton, it is worth examining the work of Jock Sturges, an American photographer who suffered at the hands of his critics in much the same way Hamilton did. However, the similarity pretty much ends there.

Some background on Sturges:

On April 25, 1990, a group of FBI agents and officers of the San Francisco Police Department raided the studio of photographer Jock Sturges, seizing his cameras, his prints, his computer — everything relating to his work as an internationally recognized fine art photographer, much of whose work involves nude portraiture of children and adolescents. The law officers discovered that they had taken on one of the art elite’s own as art communities, both in San Francisco and nationally, rallied around Sturges, his work, and the legitimacy of respectful nude photography of children and adolescents. Eventually, a San Francisco grand jury refused to indict Sturges on any charges.

Sturges’s work was again under legal attack. Grand juries in Montgomery, Alabama, and Franklin, Tennessee, have indicted bookseller Barnes & Noble on child pornography and obscenity charges for selling Sturges’s book, Radiant Identities, as well as the work of British photographer David Hamilton.

Supporters of Randall Terry and his organization, Operation Rescue — best known for their protests against abortion clinics — take credit for bringing the books to the attention of prosecutors by such actions as physically destroying books in Barnes & Noble stores.

<> on August 25, 2009 in Reston, Virginia.

Randall Terry

“The state attorney general in Alabama, a man who is running for re-election, postulates that my work is ‘obscene material of people under the age of 17 involved in obscene acts.’ This is pretty chilling language because, in fact, the people in my pictures are not engaged in any acts at all,” said Sturges.”

“I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual and psychological change, and there’s an erotic aspect to that.”

He does not seek to downplay the erotic content of his photographs. But it is of n entirely different nature from that in Hamilton.

“I will always admit immediately to what’s obvious, which is that Homo sapiens is inherently erotic or inherently sensual from birth.”

 I have argued that a significant proportion of David Hamilton’s work falls into the realm of softcore pornography.  I would also argue that a serious consideration of the work of Jock Sturges, whose work, I would argue, is in no way pornographic, would confirm this distinction.

Sturges differs from Hamilton in many respects, not least of which is that Sturges portrays  the latent sexuality of his subjects as part of the process of growing up whereas Hamilton was, for the most part, far more breathlessly voyeuristic. And there is an acquiescent eroticism and adolescent lesbianism in Hamilton’s work that is entirely absent in Sturges’.

In many ways, what personifies Sturges’ approach to his subjects is that he is a dispassionate photographer who, unlike Hamilton, observes rather than glamorises.

My favourite Sturges photograph is this one.

The two young women in the photograph are full of attitude, they are anti-models. The one on the left appears to be saying, “You want a photograph! Okay. Photograph this.” It’s a contrast to Hamilton’s work which is so beautiful and commercial. The models are so conscious of being photographed and the need to be beautiful.

You certainly couldn’t say that about the two young women in Sturges’s photo

I think that Sturges has certainly taken far better photographs, certainly in terms of composition.