Heaven and Hell in Connemara

Legal demons pursue photog Jock Sturges to an Irish paradise.

In 1990, the same year that the police raided Jock Sturges' San Francisco studio and confiscated his prints of nude girls in first adolescence, the photographer and his wife traveled to the West of Ireland.

They alighted in Connemara, a remote peninsula jutting westward into the cold north Atlantic. A classically Irish landscape of green bogs and mist-covered mountains, Connemara is cursed with a rocky soil suited only to especially hardy sheep. Its harshness was so despised by its English conquerors 350 years ago that the invading general Oliver Cromwell compared it to hell.

Unlike Cromwell, Sturges and his wife were enchanted by the place.

"I picked a town at random in Connemara," Sturges said in a lecture he gave in January at the Photo LA conference in Los Angeles, "and I started taking pictures."

A small sampling of the handsome black-and-white photos Sturges shot off and on over the next decade in Ireland is on view at Etherton Gallery. The work represents a decisive switch for Sturges, who became famous--and notorious--for his nudes of young teens in the landscape, primarily on naturist beaches in California and France. (No charges were ever brought against him in the 1990 case.) His subject here is still startlingly beautiful young girls, but these Irish lasses have not yet hit their teens. And all of them are fully clothed.

The 23 photographs picture serious schoolgirls photographed at close range in no-nonsense blazers and ties, disorderly little girls in wild flowered dresses, veiled First Communicants in gauzy white, some saintly, some less so. "Meg; County Galway, Ireland, 1999" has bobby-pinned hair tumbling anarchically into her face, but she's angelic behind her Communion veil. By contrast, the more devilish "Sarah; Scoil Mhuire, Country Galway, Ireland, 2000" has thrust her hands defiantly into the pockets of her elaborate dress, and one foot is impatiently venturing out from under its voluminous white folds.

Part of a three-person show, Firsthand: Evocations of Figure and Form, Sturges' children hang alongside Tucsonan Kate Breakey's hand-colored still lifes of voluptuous fruits and Ken Figueredo's small oil paintings of trees.

Sturges told the California lecture audience he photographs children only with family permission. He befriends the families, and he often photographs the same kids again and again as they grow. A freckled girl named Jennifer, apparently a redhead, is first glimpsed in 1997 in "Jonathan and Jennifer, Scoil Mhuire, Ireland, 1997," a kind of Gaelic Gothic. Dressed in the messy print clothes so favored by rambunctious little girls, Jennifer stands with prim pursed lips, arms at her side, alongside a round-faced little boy in a knitted sweater far too big for him. Both children gaze on the American photographer, but Jennifer delivers a particularly cool and self-confident stare.

We see her again two years later, once in a close-up portrait and once showing off her white Confirmation dress. She looks so much older we don't recognize her at first but the tip-offs are her amazing freckles--each and every one visible in Sturges' exquisite print--and her look of total self-possession.

One critic has aptly likened the stares delivered by Sturges' children to the "steady gaze of preternatural seriousness you see in Victorian photographs of children." The photographer himself recounts that the Irish parents marveled over his ability to get their full-throttle kids to stay still long enough to photograph. He photographed in the schoolyard at Scoil Mhuire (Mary School) and in its high-energy 15-minute recess, he said, "I'd shoot 15 or 20 pictures." All the tumult notwithstanding, he occasionally managed to get groups of the schoolgirls to pose in a row, in wonderful friezes, like little Greek Muses miniaturized and buttoned down in school uniforms ("Mary Ann, Marissa, Laura, Kate, Joan, Rachel and Eleana; Scoil Mhuire, Clifden, Ireland, 1992").

Sturges makes no secret of preferring to photograph females. He was raised in a boys' boarding school from the age of 8, he said, and when he got out, he was relieved and delighted to discover women. Only one picture here is all boys, and it's an endearing one. "Scoil Mhuire #63; County Galway, Ireland, 1998" has one boy front and center, grinning, arms crossed, looking frankly at the photog. Beyond, a gaggle of lads, as the Irish would say, are blurrily captured as they grapple for a ball.

But the boys' photo does make you pause. Why are the boys so lively, the stout fellow at center smiling so heartily, while the girls are so solemn and still? The girls are too full of personality and a sense of self to be reduced to mere objects--there are those stares of self-revelation, after all. But their photographer pictures them primarily not as mischief-makers or athletes or hell-raisers, but as beautiful, unsmiling beings, all pale skin and dark-fringed eyes and masses of hair.

The Irish pictures have a wonderful particularity, evoking children growing up in a rural Ireland that is rapidly losing both its conservatism and its religiosity. But different as the Irish pictures are from Sturges' more familiar nudes, they share a static, classically posed sensibility. (Some of his nudes hang in the smaller gallery at back.) Sturges said that his work is closely related to painting, and he is especially drawn to the work of Botticelli, who painted ethereally lovely women. He unabashedly acknowledges that his work is in part about the emerging sexuality of young girls; as he notes, eroticism doesn't emerge full-blown at age 18. It's more obvious in the nude pictures, of course, but you can also see a future sensuality in the chiseled loveliness of the young Irish girls.

Sturges does make fine art out of the human body; he's careful to get the consent of all parties; and he's cautious about displaying and using the prints (he'll withdraw any print any time at the request of the model). But his métier--he is, after all, a grown man who mostly photographs young girls--can be a little unsettling, even to advocates of artists' rights and free speech. Once an accusation of child porn is made, it can forever color the way anyone looks at the works.

He came out of his 1990 case legally unscathed, but he was stung again in the late '90s when fundamentalist Christians picketed bookstores selling his works, accusing vendors of selling child porn. (A few Southern cities even filed charges against Barnes & Noble.) Then the Irish town broke his heart. It seems one of his nudes had been pirated and adulterated for an appearance on a porn Web site. Word spread quickly, and suddenly people who had allowed him to photograph their daughters for years believed that they had allowed a pornographer to flourish in their midst.

"The result was that I was banned," Sturges sadly told the lecture audience. "Rumors spread." Old relationships fell apart. "One father thinks I'm the anti-Christ, after having me to tea for 10 years."

Sturges said he hopes to go back to the town in a year or two, and try to repair friendships; meantime, after many seasons of bliss, he's found his own hell in Connemara.

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