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Child Porn Fight Focuses on 2 Photographers' Books

Decency: Works of David Hamilton, Jock Sturges win praise as fine art. But obscenity charges dog both.

March 08, 1998|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

But a grand jury didn't. After Sturges' life work was carted off and tagged as evidence, after his name was dragged through the mud, the grand jury decided not to indict. Why remains unknown because the files are sealed and no one at the Justice Department will discuss the case, pending the outcome of the current investigation.

If the furor seemed to cool after Sturges was cleared, in reality it was only simmering. Recently it started to bubble up again, in Wichita, Kan., and Palm City, Fla., and Glendale, Colo., all over the map, as conservative groups continued to trade outraged notes and news about Hamilton and Sturges and occasionally filed complaints with local officials, most of whom did nothing.

Then, last summer, Randy Terry got involved. The founder of the militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue heard about Hamilton and Sturges and went straight to his local Barnes & Noble.

"I honestly wasn't believing that Barnes & Noble was selling child pornography," Terry says. "My wife and I have been shopping there for years. It's a great bookstore."

But after reviewing the books, Terry and his wife decided there was no doubt Hamilton and Sturges were child pornographers. In August, the Terrys gathered a group of supporters and returned to the bookstore, tearing up the one Sturges book they could find. Police were called, Terry says, but no one was arrested, he claims, because the officers were more offended by the book than by the protesters.

That was the start of a firestorm. Fueled by Terry's nationally syndicated radio show, people in dozens of cities began forming picket lines outside their local bookstores, sometimes raiding the shelves. Some who thought they'd never agree with Terry about anything were examining the books and finding themselves on his side.

"I would say definitely the photographs are child pornography," says Ann Simonton, a former swimsuit model for Sports Illustrated, now the head of Media Watch, a group that monitors cultural exploitation of women.

In Wichita, a group called Kansas Family Research Institute led a petition drive to force the impaneling of a grand jury, which could happen in the next 60 days. David Payne, the group's leader, says the issue is less complicated than it seems.

"There's no such thing as constitutional protection for child abuse," he says. "Regardless of the artistic merits of the work, such as technical quality and the composition of the photographs, the fact is, these are photographs of children, minors, depicted in nude and provocative poses."

Despite the mounting pressure, Barnes & Noble vows to continue stocking Hamilton and Sturges. On the other hand, many of the company's 483 stores reportedly keep the books hidden, locked away or stock them only at a customer's request.

"What's going on is basically very easy to understand," says Sturges. "These extremists are basically using me as a political vehicle to create a higher profile for their organizations."

He adds: "There's nothing criminal in my work. The thing absent from these pictures that drives people nuts is shame."

Sturges, 50, insists he has the consent and support of all his models, plus their parents. He says he meets them at nudist beaches and nudist colonies, then moves among them as a member of their extended family.

"The intent of these photographs is to be beautiful," he says. "I find Homo sapiens to be an extraordinarily beautiful species."

But in one case, Sturges' family relationship with his young models went a step further. When he was 28 he conducted a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old named Jennifer Montgomery.

At the time, she was a New England boarding school student; he was her dorm counselor. They became intimate when he began using her as a model and remained so for years.

Today, Montgomery is 36 years old, a filmmaker living in Brooklyn, N.Y.. She says the episode with Sturges left her "damaged," but she dealt with that by making a quasi-documentary in 1995 called "Art for Teachers of Children," in which she depicts Sturges as equal parts stupid, sleazy and insincere, a man who used photography to get a young, chubby, confused girl to undress.

The film earned her some acclaim and a Guggenheim fellowship, but it also put her on the radar screen of law enforcement officers everywhere. A Pittsburgh grand jury investigating Sturges and his work recently subpoenaed her, probably not the last Sturges-connected subpoena she will receive, she says.

In some ways, Montgomery embodies the conflicted relationship many have with Sturges' work, which is embraced by the cultural mainstream. (One Sturges photograph hangs in the Museum of Modern Art; another illustrates the cover of a new novel by National Book Award-winning Southern writer Ellen Gilchrist.) Montgomery acknowledges that what Sturges did to her was wrong and contends that his photographs of children are unequivocally sexual.

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