Nude Awakening

Photographers Jock Sturges and Fabio Cabral create images that are sensual but never pornographic.

It's a sorry fact that neither the left nor the right can be trusted to defend free expression. Liberals would like to censor anything that might hurt someone's feelings, conservatives would like to censor anything that might turn someone on, and with an ass-backward "kids first" mentality that turns adults into second-class citizens, both liberals and conservatives would like to restrict the rights of adults in order to "protect the children." (Such coalitions would be hilarious if they weren't so dangerous; witness the goofy anti-porn tag team formed by right-wing nag Phyllis Schlafly and left-wing hag Catharine MacKinnon.)

As a free speech absolutist, I defend everything from Patti Smith's proud prolific use of nigger to the poorly-written racism of The Turner Diaries, the rough-trade sex of Pat Califia and Robert Mapplethorpe, and the hilarious how-to Anarchist's Cookbook. I find some of the stuff offensive, some of it sexy, a lot of it just plain boring. But nothing should be done to restrict its creation or consumption. (Neither should any artist get a penny of taxpayer dollars, but that's a different can of worms.)

Thus, it did my Libertarian heart proud to see two recent collections of photos by artists who once had lots of trouble with the law. In 1991, the FBI raided the California home of photographer Jock Sturges and confiscated thousands of his images. That same year, Brazilian authorities raided the studio of photographer Fabio Cabral and seized his photos (they also raided the offices of Cabral's publisher, and a gallery exhibiting his work). In both cases, the authorities deemed the seized images pornographic. In both cases, the photos in question featured nude or semi-nude girls.

The confiscations and legal troubles (both cases were eventually thrown out of court) ignited a firestorm of debate that, like those that once swirled around the works of Nabokov and Balthus, centered on the ever-thorny issues of nudity, children and artistic explorations of emerging adolescent sexuality. I'm happy to report that Sturges and Cabral are still producing the kind of work that got them in trouble 10 years ago.

New Work features Sturges' trademark subjects: girls, young women and families, snapped on European nude beaches and in northern California. The comfort his models display in front of the camera is partly due to their familiarity with Sturges (he has been shooting some of them for decades), and partly due to their naturist environment. ("We are not naked for the pictures, we are naked for the summer, and because we are alive," one of his models says in an earlier collection.)

In brilliant, grainless photos, Sturges' models exude innocence, sensuality and a growing awareness of their emerging sexuality. Wonderfully erotic but never overtly sexual, the photos are masterly, the print quality astounding.

Cabral's Anjos Proibidos (Forbidden Angels) collects 51 black-and-white images, including all 24 of those seized in 1991. Reflecting his commercial and fashion backgrounds (and his Brazilian sensibility), Cabral poses his semi-nude models provocatively, and the results are mixed.

Sometimes Cabral captures a natural sensuality in his subjects; other times he simply sexualizes his models. The difference can be subtle, but it's palpable. And while some of the photos in Anjos are strikingly erotic, others are borderline creepy (there's a big difference between a 17-year-old and a 10-year-old, especially when they're posed provocatively, as they are here).

The differences between Sturges and Cabral are obvious. While Sturges explores the natural sensuality (and emerging sexuality) of his young models, Cabral manufactures it. While Sturges captures the beauty of his subjects, Cabral embellishes it unnecessarily. Compared to those by Sturges, Cabral's photos are more provocative, less artful.

(It should be noted too that Sturges' models are almost always completely nude; his photos brim with bared breasts, buttocks and genitals. At the same time, with no bared butts or genitals, Cabral's photos are sexier. In fact, the difference between Sturges' and Cabral's photos is a lot like the difference between a European nude beach and a beach in Rio. On the nude beach, you'll find plenty of naked bodies, but nary a whiff of sex; on the beaches of Rio, where interesting body parts are (barely) covered, sex fairly crackles in the air, much like the thick smell of impending violence you'll find in most Indian bars.)

The legal cases against Sturges and Cabral were eventually thrown out, as they should have been. Their images are sensual, frequently erotic, sometimes sexual, but never pornographic. Their work should be viewed and celebrated for several reasons: for the beauty of the subjects, the artfulness of the photos, and to flip the finger at everyone who would restrict what artists can create, and what adults can consume. And the girls are pretty cute, too.