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Friday, 7 January 2011

Jock Sturges, the Third Floor Gallery and Portraiture with a capital p and a small p

Here are a few interesting posts from over the holidays. The first is from J.Wesley Brown at We can shoot too and he asks what is a portrait. Is it a head and shoulders shot, can those pictures of random figures in the background be a portrait and what of pictures of pictures or screens or posters...

Not sure I know the answer to any of that, but I suspect it is something where the elements of the picture contribute something to the subject being portrayed or vice versa.

The other interesting post was by Elizabeth Fleming guest-posting on A Photo Editor. In this post she asks whether photographers should be held responsible for the recontextualising of their images, on the internet in particular. She also said that the pictures struck her "...as distressingly sexualized and, frankly, unsettling. Jonathan puts it best in his piece when he says that: “even in a world of moral relativity, these images transgressed some basic taboo.”

There is a whole can of worms to get oneself into here (not least the twists of Sturges' own life) but I don't think the photographer (or the film-maker, writer or poet) should be held responsible for the recontextualisation of their work.  I'm not interested in Sturges' work but I would defend it from charges of criminality.  I also think that Sturges pictures are more de-sexualised than anything else - his models might be attractive, skinny Europeans, but barring the lack of clothing in his pictures, it seems to me that he goes out of his way to avoid the sexually suggestive. 

Finally, it's over to Blake Andrews for an interview with Joni Karanka about the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff -  another example of people who are just getting on with it despite minimal funding and the immense time and effort involve.. 


tim atherton said...

I'd have to agree with you on Fleming and Sturges.

First the whole area of recontextualisation of the photographer's or artists work really isn't (and in many ways can't be) their concern or responsibility (apart from the simple fact of them having very limited control over it all anyway).

But secondly it seems the whole article stems from Flemings own strong reaction (or, rather, over-reaction) to Sturges work.

She apparently finds them "distressingly sexualized and, frankly, unsettling" and also appears to agree that "these images transgressed some basic taboo.” Yet this is a purely subjective highly personal response (one she apparently didn't have before becoming a mother?) and really pays little attention to the actual images themselves.

Apart from her view seeming to be terribly USAcentric - with all the moral confusion, faux prudishness and psychological conundrums that entails - I can only agree with you that Sturges photographs are indeed more de-sexualised than anything else. Most could quite easily to transformed into marble statues with a CNC Machine and a big block of stone and that would grace any public park, fountain or stately home...

They certainly seem to fly much less close to the erotic or sexual than a some of Sally Mann's work, or even Monica Kuhn's.

And this isn't meant as a cheap shot, but looking through Flemings own work, some of it has much more potential to be sexually charged than most of Sturges work I've ever seen.

That Fleming choses to see such such sexualization in Sturges images is really all about her as viewer rather than about Sturges as photographer. What's interesting is how, as an artist, she seems unable to distinguish the difference and so ends up trying to reverse the process and put it all back on Sturges.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Tim. I agree with you with regard to Sally Mann in particular - who didn't have too many qualms about showing her children in their natural (and very physical ) state.

Mann understood that the danger of how people view her pictures comes from projected ideas of sexuality (adult ideas) that are not necessarily consistent with the lives and perspectives of the people photographed - and possibly that by showing her children in the way she is showing them, she is also making the statement that not only is this the ways things are, this is also the way things ought to be.

Certainly, people I meet who personally identify with that childhood of swimming naked in wild rivers never express regret about their childhoods and always love Mann's pictures for the wildness they seem to portray.

I think Sturges and the people he photographs possibly share the normative nature of photography, and I think Elizabeth's work (which I really like) does the same. And that's a good thing.

william said...

Wow. A lot of "I"s for someone wishing to stick to the issues. I don't necessarily disagree with her on all points. Obviously Sturges work has eroticism built into it. It is naive to think otherwise. A question for me is whether the eroticism is biological or whether it is a societal product. The article is more about Sturges than his imagery, though the author tries to "naturalize" that schism to make her narrative seem organic. I didn't know much of what she reports about his personal life. Truly interesting and much thanks for that reporting.

I've never been much of a Sturges fan. His images seem emotionally "flat" to me. At first, I thought him just incapable, but Fleming's article might make me look again. Sturges, she makes me believe, might be more complex than I first imagined. That emotional flatness I perceive might just be a mask for his own personal agenda.

I have no quarrel with Fleming's article other than the many internal contradictions about her purpose and desire. She needs to "come clean" as does Sturges. As do we all. But we do not need to wonder whose work will be discussed one hundred years from now, if any of it will be discussed at all.