Sustainable Prospects - Sally Mann

I read Sally Mann book Immediate family, well, I attempted to read it on the Eurostar and quickly put it away when images of children naked, with vaginas and penis on show. I felt very uncomfortable and had to put the book away. Maybe because I have seen first hand the damage that sexual exploitation does to children, I felt that her kids were unknowing victims at that time. My own kids would run around naked, and so they should be able to, but at some stage we have to say, only in our four walls and not for public display. For example there is an image called Popsicle drips, her sons penis, and the remains of a melted icepop. No face in the image is what I find disturbing, as that image is I would deem pornographic in taste.

In the book she talks about a photo of herself as a baby that she was naked and how it affected her so much as a teenager she flushed it down the loo. Although as an adult she may have regretted that choice. The damage was done. But she still went on to take images of her kids that I interpreted at times to be sexualised, especially as she refers to them as modelling naked it must have been a considered action and not an every day photo of the child naked playing etc. I take photos of my children and grandkids at times naked, being free children. But the thought of my kids being pleasure for some paedofile, because let's face it that will happen, and that causes me mental stress. The final image "The last time Emmett modelled nude" is an obvious photograph of an unwilling model.

The conflict within me is huge as I actually do love some of her work.

Some viewers might argue that her work is scattered with sexual connotations, nudity was clearly an accepted and natural part of Mann’s home that the child is naked makes some viewers uncomfortable and challenges their thoughts on what is acceptable. Few artists who challenge the standard ideals of childhood are as deliberately provocative as Mann. One way of looking at it is that Mann’s photographs are a simple record of moments in her childrens’ lives. Children playing, eating, wounded and sleeping. They are recognisable and intimate moments that almost all mothers experience. Mann claims that ‘many of these pictures are intimate, some fictions and some fantastic, but most are ordinary things that every mother has seen’

However, another way of looking at it is that the taking of such intimate photographs is complicated and not very clear as evidenced by the withdrawal of certain photographs from public display due to their perceived pornographic element. Susan Sontag states in the book On Photography‘ to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time. This indicates that Sontag believes that photographs can be intrusive and that once an image is captured on film it exists in its own right. And unlike back in those days, film could be destroyed but with the digital era Images when on the web are there forever.

To take a photograph, Sontag writes, ‘is to appropriate the thing photographed’ The appropriation, the stealing without touching, the having a semblance of knowledge, Sontag likens to perversion. It can be seen from this that Sontag believes that everything can be photographed as long as the end result is interesting, nothing else really matters. My opinion is that Sally Mann falls victim to this concept, seeing her children as purely artistic objects, encouraging them to pose in such a way as she thinks of the composition and make an interesting photograph. This preference for creating aesthetically pleasing, posed, images rather than capturing the natural reality of childhood is one of the main criticisms of her work. The image of Shiva at Whistle Creek is a more natural depiction of Jessie playing in the water compared to the very posed image of Virginia at aged six, holding her body in a pose for the sole purpose of creating an interesting picture. According to Sontag therefore Mann has taken possession of her childrens’ bodies to make them her own through the art of photography.

In September 1992, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story by arts critic Richard B. Woodward entitled “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann.” The piece wasn’t overtly critical, but honed in on the children’s sexuality and raised ideas about child abuse and incest that seemed deliberately designed to spark controversy. Mann later complained that Woodward had taken her words out of context.

The children have become objects of art possessed by Sally Mann, which many would argue is distasteful. Sally Mann is clearly a very influential, controversial photographer. She has the ability to take sensitive at times but also provocative images. Some of her photographs in ‘Immediate Family’ portray loving images of her children. However there is also a disturbing element to some of her other photographs, for example Popsicle Drops or Dog Scratches, which can be viewed as sexualised images. To counter this it is necessary to appreciate the context in which the photographs were taken, a mother photographing her children. However it can be argued that Mann should be more sensitive in choosing the material which she makes available in the public domain.

The artistic techniques employed by Sally Mann are exceptionally effective. She succeeds in drawing the viewer to the focal part of the image through the use of composition, light and contrast. Whilst her subject matter can be controversial she produces stunning images. Interestingly her children have grown up wondering what all the fuss was about.

The above photograph, Shiva at Whistle Creek, depicts Jessie crouching in water. She clutching her knees and what seems to be a praying position with the hands pointing towards the water. Avoiding contact with the camera, maybe looking at the water, a stunning image.

In comparison Dog scratches, lying on a bed in a provocative pose. Arms and legs seem posed, the light captured on the whole of her body gives a very different feeling to the viewer. accessed 18 November 2018 accessed 16 November 2018

SML accessed 28 Nov 2018 accessed 16 November 2018

SONTAG, S. (2014). On Photography.

MANN, S. (1992). Sally mann: immediate family. [Place of publication not identified], Aperture.

#MAphotographyfalmouth #sallymann

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© 2018 by Gail Timms