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Article: Photographer Sally Mann

andrea richards

Photographer Sally Mann

I’ve long been moved by the work of photographer Sally Mann, especially two of her most controversial collections of images: At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, which captures girls on the cusp of adolescence and Immediate Family, her most famous — and most maligned — work. When a monograph of Immediate Family was published in 1992, it caused a firestorm. The photographs of the three Mann children, mostly at play on the acres of forested woods of their Virginia farm, were highly controversial; though they depict the kids doing exactly what it is most kids normally do—getting muddy, swimming, roller skating, bleeding—the children are often nude or in various stages of being unclothed in the photographs. sallymann-fb In the culture of the early 1990s, when the NEA was on trial and obscenity in art a red-button issue, Mann’s photographs were highly criticized. (They still are.) Critics of her work called it child pornography and cast the artist in the tired cliché of a bad mother, exploiting her children for her gain and exposing them to great danger in the process. From the beginning, Mann envisioned her children as collaborators in the photographs, writing this in the book’s intro: “At times, it is difficult to say exactly who makes the pictures . . .” No doubt, Mann’s work raises issues, not just about childhood sexuality (which she calls an oxymoron) but also about the agency of children, the role of the photographer, artifice in art, and why we always demand an autobiographical reading of artistic works. For instance, we don’t look at Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits without acknowledging their artifice (it’s easy to see through her role play in her Film Series) whereas Mann’s photos are taken as Exhibit A in a public debate on obscenity; we fail to see that the photographs in Immediate Family do not capture the real, they capture only what the photographer wants us to see. As a college kid, when I was first exposed to Mann’s work, Immediate Family haunted me—it suggested not the usual Disneyfied version of childhood that we’ve commoditized and solidified culturally, but acknowledged unspoken aspects of it that I still felt in my bones like the feral feeling twilight brought on a summer night. Not far out of my own childhood, I guess I mostly identified with the kids in the photos, the black-and-white images inspiring my own nostalgia (photos are good at that). But now, looking at Immediate Family some 20 years and two kids later, I think more about the process that made these photographs and I admire them even more. Far from being a stage mother out to exploit her kids, Mann’s work exposes the complicated dance between a mother and child, the deep, dark maternal love that they don’t make Hallmark cards about—the heartbreaking moments when we behold our children’s bodies for the beautiful, strong, resilient, and creative beings that they are. That is what Mann has captured and so much more.

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