Sally Mann’s Immediate Family: The Unflinching and Unafraid Childhood
By Valerie Osbourn, October 27, 2006
In the fall of 1992, a traveling exhibit opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The collection was called “Immediate Family”, and it was by a young and lesser known photographer by the name of Sally Mann. The images, taken from 1984 to 1991 detailed the complex childhoods of her three children; Emmet, Jessie and the youngest, Virginia. At the time of the first gallery opening, Mann was unaware of the media attention she would attract, and the controversy that her work would stir up. To her, they were little more than tender, maternal photographs of her children.
Yet to others, they were child pornography, and the mark of an irresponsible mother. Sally Mann’s “Immediate Family” shows us the sensuous and sometimes disturbing side of childhood. The controversy that “Immediate Family” stirred up is a direct reflection of the times in which it was produced, and says more about the adult viewer than of the child subject. Sally Mann chooses to explore the concept of childhood and “growing up” using a variety of the sensual, reality and the fantastic; all through a maternal eye.
“Immediate Family” is a collection of photographs taken in rural Virginia, where the children, and Mann herself, spent their childhoods. Mann photographed the children and the landscape through a massive 8 by 10 view camera, staging elaborate portraits that still lie within the realm of possibility. Mann states that these photographs are “of my children living their lives here too. Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictitions and some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things that every mother has seen” (Mann) In most of the images, the children appear nude, or partially nude.
They posture, as children do, but through a combination of suggestive titles and lack of clothing the images take on a more overtly sexualized appearance. Many have hastily labeled this as indecent, and consequently, something they would rather ignore.
The sensuality in Mann’s work is unavoidable. She sees the innate sexuality of her children where others would shy away from it. She glorifies it. In the image entitled “Popsicle Drips”, we see a young, male torso, stained with liquid dripping down his lower abdomen to his thighs. His hips are sensually thrown to the side, and his arms are fully out of view. Upon first glance, it is an incredibly disturbing image, for two reasons. One, without the title, this liquid substance could be anything. My first impression of it was blood, and the second was feces. When reading the title, it makes a bit more sense, but one has to wonder, how did the popsicle drips get down there?
It opens up an entire line of questioning on how staged this image really was. Secondly, this image is the only one in the entire body of work that details male full-frontal nudity. This comes as a shock to those who were not expecting it, and it causes more of a discomfort than that of the full-frontal nude female. This image is highly provocative in its subject’s pose, and the added popsicle drips adds an element of touch and tangibility for the viewer. Gender is an issue that many people bring up when dealing with Mann’s work.
The image’s meaning changes when the artist is a woman, and the subject is male. It has the tendency to become distinctly more sexual, and in turn, comes more under fire than the female/female exchange. Emmet, the only male of the three children, is seen much less provocatively in the series than the girls are. When Jessie and Virginia are naked in bed, he appears with shorts. While the girls are busy posturing, he is only staring at the camera, almost resentful in the way that he is being depicted. Even in the almost sad titled “The Last Time Emmet Modeled Nude”, we still only see him from the waist up, he genitals obscured by swirling water.
This photo “respectfully solemnizes a pre-adolescent boy’s newly awakened modesty, emblem of his loss of innocence and lingering vulnerability” (Boulanger). This image, above all, shows the modestly and uncertainty that Emmet felt about his modeling. In an interview that an older Jessie Mann gave to Aperture magazine, she tells how Emmet is dealing with the pressure that he is put under from the photographs of his youth. “Emmet is completely daunted by it. He doesn’t know what he wants, so he backs away from the whole thing” (Jessie Mann). This feeling is easily discernible in the images of him, and can explain why he appears nude much less than the girls.
Another overtly sensual image is “Dirty Jessie”. We see Jessie, who couldn’t be more than six or seven, lying vulnerably on the grass. Her legs are spread wide and her hands are placed over her nipples; obscuring them. She wears only panties and rubber galoshes. The shoes are partially kicked off, making her legs appear detached and broken. She appears so vulnerable and so frail, yet her gaze is so enticing. The image is taken from above, objectifying her. Her gaze falls directly into the lens as if beckoning the viewer to come join her. The name again suggests something sexual and playful; “Dirty Jessie”. This image becomes the most sexual due to the positioning of the camera above her, and the semi-modest touching of her nipples.
Jessie poses in many other of the most provocative images in this series, and seems to do most of the posturing. She appears in another of the most sensuous images entitled “Jessie at five”, where a game of dress up becomes a nude model session for the camera. Jessie is shown from the waist up, two other figures next to her, but thrown in the shadows. One of them is Virginia, Mann’s youngest daughter, who appears to be covering her face in an act of modesty. Jessie poses in a way that one would not expect a child to do. It is a pose of a much more sexually mature girl than that of a five year old. Jessie wears a pearl necklace and earrings, along with lipstick and blush.
Emmett’s Bloody Nose, 1985
The title is shocking in that this girl looks as if she could be twelve or thirteen, modeling for a fashion magazine. The image plays off of the concept of age, and what it truly means to be a child. Jessie obviously is, but she has made herself up to look much older, and she flaunts for the camera with a centerfold gaze. Jessie Mann comments on these actions most articulately, saying that “There are so many levels to childhood that we as a society ignore, or don’t accept. Rather than just saying it, she (Sally Mann) was able to capture it with photographs. It’s easy to discount these things unless you can really see them in the kids’ eyes, or see it in their actions” (Jessie Mann).
To depict what childhood truly is, Mann utilizes reality in a select few of her images. However staged this reality may be, she is dealing with what being a child means; and the fiercely private nature of bed-wetting, chickenpox and bloody noses. One image that seems to stand out from the rest in terms of reality, is the aptly named “He is Very Sick”. It shows a very young Jessie and Emmet in a hospital room, sitting on a bed with whom is presumably their grandfather, lying in it. The old man reaches his hand towards the camera, letting it clasp the rails of the bed. Jessie leans her head against it, staring tragically at the camera. Emmet is slightly out of focus, and the look on his face looks more like a feigned sadness than a real one. His arms are crossed defiantly, and he pulls his head away from the camera.
The old man in bed is shrouded by light, making his face barely visible. These are the moments that most families go through, and they are the ones that no camera-happy relative would be caught dead capturing on film. They are tragic and denied, and I can hear the mother’s words attempting to explain what is happening to grandpa to her young children. “He is Very Sick”. Emmet does not seem to understand why he is being photographed, and he is presumably trying to hide his sadness. Jessie seems to be too young to understand that these are very private moments, and that they are not generally photographed. This image brings Mann’s work back into the realm of reality, and makes it familiar for viewers.
“The Wet Bed” is an image that falls somewhere between the real and the fantastic. The subject matter is a very real and frightening issue for children, yet the composition of the image takes it to a dreamlike state. Beautiful nude Virginia is seen sleeping, sprawled out on the mattress without a care, her quilt kicked off of her. It is a perfect depiction of childhood until one reads the title “The Wet Bed”. The eye instantly darts to the stain permeating out from under her, and she becomes a vulnerable and victimized subject. She becomes the child that pees in bed, that is ashamed of what she has done. The bed floats in the shadows, becoming the only highlight in the photo. It is a reflection of Virginia’s sleeping, dreamy state, and it is brought back to reality through the darkened urine stain on the sheets.
The ambivalence towards the ugliness of the wet bed creates a whole different type of beauty, one that can only be shown through blatant reality. Another easily looked over detail in the image is the doll towards the bottom of the image, partially in the light. It lies on the ground, and mirrors Virginia’s sleeping state. This is an image that most mother’s see when they have toddlers, and Mann chose to bring her private world to the forefront of the public. This hasn’t sat well with everyone, as some think that the private world should stay that way, even concerning art. “Certain photographs have concerned critics, as has the transferal of the ‘private’ family imagery into the public domain” (Fletcher).
“Damaged Child” is another reality based image, in which Jessie appears with a very swollen right eye. Her hair is cropped short, and her sexless face is determined only by the frilly dress that she wears. Her face is the only thing in focus in the image, and it appears to be jutting out towards the viewer. She wears no smile in the image, and she looks sad and helpless. While other mother’s are busy bragging about their child making the soccer team or winning a beauty pageant, Sally Mann is busy showing the less flattering side of motherhood. She is showing the maternal need to tend to her wounded child, and is not concerned about the beauty of it. This is real life and she is not afraid to show it.
Jessie Mann feels that this was her way of showing her love for them, through the capturing of their lives on film. “She has a hard time letting us know how much she loves us. But I’ve also realized that each one of those photographs was her way of capturing, if not in a hug or a kiss or a comment, how much she cared about us” (Jessie Mann). Capturing such reality of motherhood and childhood on film reveals an uncanny look at what a child is, and how they at once need a mother incessantly, yet still push her away to develop their own identity.
Mann also tends to lean towards the fantastical image; the fiction based in reality. The landscape and the lighting provide a dreamlike setting in which the children reside. “Winter Squash” is a perfect example of the use of the fantastic in Mann’s images. A reclining Virginia is depicting next to a decrepit toy horse, a staple of childhood. She is surrounded by uprooted squash, all glowing with the winter light. The light playing off of the figures produces a glowing quality, and makes the image seem more dream-like.
Virginia is shown with her eyes half-lidded, and her arm between her legs, modestly covering herself. She looks serene, and is transformed into a iconic Madonna like figure, her body free from blemish or scar of any kind. The toy horse is lying down in the dirt, its paint chipping. If the horse has been discarded, what does this say about Virginia’s childhood and innocence? This image deals with what a child sees, versus what an adult sees. Mann uses this theme often, mostly in the photos that deal with the fantastic. She transports us into an imaginative world that often disappears after childhood has.
“Hayhook” is another good example of Mann’s use of the fantastic in “Immediate Family”. The image is of the adults in the family lounging on the porch, while a young Virginia watches her sister hang by her hands from a hay-hook. The image is very neutral, not utilizing much contrast, except where the hanging Jessie is concerned. She glows a perfect white, a stripe down the center of the image. It is easy to forget what is going on elsewhere in the photograph, because the nude and highlighted figure of Jessie demands so much attention. The adults are all facing away from her, ignorant to what the children are doing. Jessie hangs, her head thrown back in apparent ecstacy. She is all alone in the image, yet is surrounded by adults.
Childhood is often made up of this, and many children feel isolated in their emotions and their presence. In this image, Mann uses a obviously posed and fictitious image to represent a very real issue that children deal with everyday in a world of adults. “Yard Eggs” also depicts the loneliness and isolation of childhood. It shows a much more mature Virginia sitting in the bushes, her long curly hair entangled in the branches. She holds a straw hat filled with eggs, and her eyes are shut dreamily. She is all alone in the picture, and is behind a fence between her and the house. Her hair blends perfectly into the branches, mirroring its organic shape. This is not a picture that any mother would come across, and it is obviously highly composed. Mann chooses to depict her child in this way to show how lonely childhood can be. Her whimsical yet sad images transcend reality to reveal deeper issues, and to give her children a voice.
“Immediate Family” is all about showing what really makes up a child and a childhood. Although Mann is composing the images, she lets her children have their own voice, and it is easy to see each of their personalities through the images. The fact that the work was created over many years suggests a sort of narrative; three children growing up and attempting to discover themselves and their sexuality. It is most notable in images of Jessie, where she seems to be on the threshold of childhood and womanhood. She stands on the precipice, yet is undecided (Ferrer).This happens everyday, and the fact that Mann chose to photograph it should not be grounds on which to deem her an irresponsible mother. She always made sure they were comfortable with what she was doing, and the adult Jessie recalls what happened previously before the work went on display. “When Aperature published ‘Immediate Family’, Mom and Dad sat us down, and we had a family meeting. They asked, ‘Are you going to be okay with this?'” (Jessie Mann).
Mann brings to the forefront what other mothers wish to hide, and this deeply concerns some critics. Though she is glorified by some, her unflinching view of childhood has become infamous to others. This is much more about the current socio-political climate than it is about the actual images. Novelist Ann Beattie commented on Mann’s work, saying that “These girls still exist in an innocent world in which a pose is only a pose-what adults make of that pose may be the issue” (Ferrer). The issue of children’s sexuality has also been argued in response to Mann’s work.
“What adults understand as the sexuality of children is always defined by the adult world; in this view, childhood is not fixed but culturally produced” (Edge, Baylis). “”Immediate Family” needs to be considered within the cultural and social climate that produced it; an America which was busy legislating to prevent Federal Funds being used to promote, disseminate or produce material depicting sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children or individuals engaged in sex acts”(Fletcher). Pedophilia is a very real fear in today’s world. When images of this type, no matter how innocent, are displayed to the public, it is always possible that they will be deemed inappropriate. Child molestation is a frighteningly real issue that most would choose to ignore, and stamp out anything that even slightly resembles it.
Mann’s depiction of her children’s real emotions and sexuality frightens and disturbs many. “The reception of her work reflects contemporary concerns about child abuse and the nature of childhood” (Fletcher). Though she produces many beautiful works of art, she still falls under the blade of many, through a projection of their own insecurities onto her work. Many mothers would like to view their children through themselves, denying them their own voice and stealing from them their sexuality and emotions. Mann refuses to do this, and faces the problem head on through the work of “Immediate Family”. Through the use of the fantastic, the sensual and the real, she lends us an insight into what childhood may really be about, and questions where the line between children and adults begins to blur.
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