Art Police Strike in S.F.
Village Voice, June 12, 1990, p. 75-76
Photographer Jock Sturges felt "on top of the world" as he bicycled home to his Richmond district apartment in San Francisco on April 25. He'd been swimming at the University of San Francisco pool and was pleasurably anticipating the opening of his exhibition at the prestigious Roger Ramsay gallery in Chicago the following week. As he got off his bike he was confronted by a phalanx of FBI agents and San Francisco Police Department officers. They believed Jock Sturges was a child pornographer, and they'd come to put him out of business.
One of their first questions that afternoon was. "Do you know Joe Semien?" Sturges, who normally makes black-and-white, large-format nudes, had given a batch of color slides to custom-color printer Semien (to make inter-negatives) so that Sturges might make C prints. The images were outtakes intended as gifts for Sturges's subjects and characterized by the photographer as "portraits, nudes on beaches, and images of fathers and daughter, most of them old friends."
Semien had exposed the film and sent it on to Newell Colour lab for processing. Lab customer-service manager Robert Couse-Baker notified the authorities. He felt obligated to do so, he told me, under California's "very specific reporting laws, which [proscribe] photos of children under 14 either engaged in sex acts or graphic displays of genitalia." (The affidavit for the warrant to search Sturges's apartment also showed that Couse-Baker informed the SFPD that the professional quality of the prints suggested that they "could be used in a magazine or other such publication.")
During the predawn hours of April 25, the FBI-SPFD raided Semien's apartment and jailed the black, 26-year-old small-businessman. Under state law, he was charged with two felony counts of producing child pornography and 10 misdemeanor counts of possessing it. A former honor student and art-school scholarship recipient, Semien was finally released the night of April 26 on his own recognizance (after failing to post $81,000 bail, later determined unnecessary.) Shortly thereafter, the public defender assigned to him urged Semien to plead guilty and plea bargain. Sturges and his lawyer, Michael Metzger, put Semien in touch with attorney Howard Specter, who is mounting a defense.
Photos and negatives by Semien confiscated in the raid on his apartment have been returned, suggesting the possibility that charges might be dismissed. (This will be determined at a pretrial conference slated for late June.) "My client committed no crime," Semien's attorney told me. "They're simply using him in an attempt to get Jock Sturges."
Sturges, however, has not yet been charged with a single crime. After meeting the FBI-SPFD squad in front of his apartment building, he climbed the stairs to his second-floor flat. An official foot was stuck in his door, so Sturges asked for a search warrant. He was informed that a search warrant is not necessary to occupy premises where suspects may destroy evidence. "We'll go easy," Sturges says they assured him, "if you cooperate." According to the artist, he refused to let them search his apartment; they entered anyway.
Sturges described that afternoon as a "nightmare." He frantically sought legal assistance as the agents and policemen entered every room of his apartment. Within an hour, Ephraim Margolin, a $350-per-hour lawyer, arrived. (Sturges later replaced Margolin with Metzger.) To escape eavesdroppers, the two retreated to the bathroom to converse in Russian! Sturges and Margolin left around four, as did the FBI-SFPD, and when Sturges and Margolin returned around five, so did the law enforcers. This time they brought a search warrant and a van.
Two hours later, Sturges's apartment-and life-was turned upside down. According to Sturges, the FBI-SFPD confiscated thousands of valuable prints and negatives, damaging some of the prints. They took his cameras, a computer, his business records, books (including Lolita and a children's primer about Japanese), an issue of Mothering magazine (for which Sturges is a contributing photographer), and slickly erotic photographs by the French photographer Jacques Bourboulon-possession of which may lead to prosecution, according to Metzger. They also removed items with no apparent evidentiary potential, including a photographic enlarger, computer printer, and darkroom light fixture.
Lawyer Metzger met with Assistant U.S. Attorney Rodolfo Orjales on May 25 to discuss the case. Nothing conclusive came of their meeting, Metzger reported, save for an agreement to schedule another confab if charges are going to be pressed. (The FBI, the SFPD, and the U.S. attorney's office did not return repeated calls for comment.) But even if the investigation is dropped and Sturges is allowed to pick up his own possessions, he's already lost $15,000 to $20,000 in legal fees, thousands of dollars worth of prints, thousands of income dollars, his equanimity (he began seeing a psychiatrist for the first time last month), and very possibly his good name. The day an article about the raid on his apartment appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, he lost a seven-year-long job photographing students and members of the Marin Ballet.
Are Sturges's pictures pornographic? Not according to Peter Galassi, Museum of Modern Art photography curator, who describes Sturges's work as "a serious artistic endeavor. This work is not pornography. Sturges photographs public scenes that existed before he came along." (MoMA owns one of Sturges's photographs, as do the Metropolitan Museum and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.) In Sturges's pictures, subjects are never engaged in sexual acts and, if under-age, are always photographed in the presence of parents or guardians. Any possible undercurrent of eroticism is both what you'd expect from male and female pubescent subjects and precisely what makes the work effective.
Until recently the legal distinction between art and pornography was crystal clear. Miller v. California, a 1973 Supreme Court case, stated that a work could not be found obscene unless it met three criteria, one being that "the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." (Our legal system has never equated nudity and pornography.) But now, under the pretense of concern for child abuse, a full-fledged moral panic about child pornography has been fomented by the Reagan-Bush administrations. The Cincinnati-Mapplethorpe case is the best-known recent example; another involved Alice Sims, the Virginia artist whose two children were temporarily taken from her in 1988 because of the buff snapshots of them she uses in her work.
Metzger believes that despite the state charges against Semien, it is far more likely that any prosecution against Sturges will be federal. (He suspects that no California prosecutor would waste the time and money to try to get such a conviction in San Francisco, although other attorneys disagree.) In any legal venue, the relevant matter will not be the Miller standards of obscenity, but the prohibition against sexually explicit (i.e. pornographic) representations of minors, which makes it unnecessary to establish obscenity. Explicitness is usually statutorily defined as "sexual intercourse...bestiality...masturbation...sadistic or masochistic abuse...and lascivious exhibitions of the genitals" [italics added]. Lasciviousness is determined by highly subjective "tests" of whether there is a focus on the genitals, whether the setting and circumstances are sexual, and the like. In other words, lasciviousness is in the eye of the beholder.
I call the hullabaloo surrounding child pornography a moral panic (defined by Nina Eliasoph, author of The Missing Children Myth, as a situation "in which a minor social problem expresses and preempts a deeper related one") because no epidemic of child pornography exists and no child abuse-child pornography link has ever been scientifically established. At its height, prior to Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" crusade of 1977, the total number of children involved in kiddie porn worldwide during the 1960s and '70s (most of which was produced abroad) did not exceed 5,000 to 7,000. What little child pornography did exist was halted by the Protection of Children From Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977. (According to the Illinois Legislative Investigating Committee report, commercially distributed child pornography had disappeared by 1980.) By the mid-1980s the U.S. Customs and Postal Service were virtually alone in "mass-marketing" child pornography in this country, according to researchers including attorney and obscenity expert Lawrence Stanley. The government's purpose, ACLU legislate counsel Barry Lynn believes, has been "a kind of entrapment."
This may help explain why the number of child pornography-related federal indictments has increased from 61 in fiscal year 1984 to 244 in 1987 and continues to balloon, according to First Amendment attorney Martin Garbus. The figures are also an index of the vast resources thrown at this "problem" by the Justice Department. Garbus cited the "spectacular funding" of the JD's Meese-founded National Obscenity Enforcement Unit (The New York Times, April 28), which gives money to enterprises like the Bay Area-wide task force on child pornography-headed by none other than Assistant U.S. Attorney Orjales.
When it comes to measuring this pepped-up law enforcement activity-which is typically and circularly invoked to justify increased funding-the harassment of artists such as Sims and Sturges must be taken into account. Given the amount of SFPD research entailed in compiling the affidavit on which Sturges's search warrant was based, it seems remarkable that Sturges's status as an award-winning artist who shows in San Francisco was either undiscovered or considered irrelevant to the investigation.
The FBI's long-standing interest in the regulation of sexuality hardly ended with J. Edgar Hoover's death. According to Sturges, several subjects of his photos have been unnerved by recent calls from FBI agents. One Californian I spoke with-all the members of his family have been regularly photographed by Sturges for more than a decade-clammed up in fear when I asked him about what he termed the "invasive, frightening, and upsetting call" the FBI made to his preteen daughter. He'd earlier described Sturges's extended series of photographs as "a priceless spiritual record...proudly displayed in our home." His understandable reticence about discussing FBI activities is disheartening.
It is ironic that this "nightmare" should be happening to Sturges, a photographer so determined to avoid embarrassing his subjects that he told me he uses onetime, instead of blanket, model releases for exhibition or publication so subjects may change their minds at any time. The Navy veteran and Rhode Island-born blue blood also reported that he recently rejected the maquette for a book of his pictures to be published by French publisher Contrejour because he found the selection of images a bit too "sexually oriented."
After concluding one of many conversations with Sturges, I tuned into the final episode of stylishly reactionary Twin Peaks, where evil lurks everywhere and must be exorcised. I arrived just in time for yet another reference to the photo-appearance of teenage coke-head Laura Palmer in Flesh World, the series' porn periodical. What is the real meaning of the pervasive fetishization of the untouched and untouchable child (or young adult)? As Lawrence Stanley observed, "So-called child pornography-which tends to be loosely defined-is another expanding category of constitutionally unprotected speech." Photographers such as Sturges are the scapegoats for the right-wing agenda of criminalizing any representation of sexuality. In conjunction with the crusade against "obscenity," protecting the rights of crime victims becomes one more rationale for gutting the First Amendment. Jock Sturges and Joe Semien are simply pawns in this despicable game.
Thanks to Daiel Tsang for research assistance.
Follow-up: Scene & Heard, September 17, 1991
From the West Coast comes the bracing news that a San Francisco federal grand jury refused to indict photographer Jock Sturges on child pornography charges, despite a wasteful, 15-month federal probe conducted in the US and France.