The artist/mother, mother/artist, revisiting the work of Sally Mann

akikoThe decision of to start a family is a daunting one for anybody, and one I’m not ashamed to say terrifies me. Having children impacts every part of your life and undeniably changes you as a person. This is somehow especially true and difficult for working women artists who are, more often than their male counterparts, expected to be completely devoted to their children as well as their work. Some insist you can’t have it all and abstain all together but others enter into this lifelong juggling act with optimism and a sense of adventure. When I think of women balancing family and art and what that can mean my mind immediately jumps to the work of Sally Mann and her book Immediate Family.

Mann was a photographer long before she was a mother, she first picked up a camera at the Putney School in the late 60’s. Her father was an amature photographer and encouraged her to pursue her new passion, it was his 5×7 camera started her down the path to what would become her signature, large format photography. When her children were born in 1979, 81 and 85 production of her work understandably slowed a bit, she was focused on mainly landscapes and her first book “At Twelve”, a collection of photographs of pre-teen girls. One day her daughter Jessie came home with an eye swollen from bug bites and Mann snapped a picture, it was that frame that, “made me aware of the potential right under my nose.”

 

The photos that would later be published as Immediate Family are beautiful, and have become so ubiquitous you’ve probably seen a few. Mann managed to capture the sweet “innocent savagery” of her children’s life at their secluded Virginia farm, wet beds, bug bites and bloody noses included. The photos rocketed her into the spotlight in and out of the art world but a large part of the discussion they started was not about the work itself, it was about her children, all of whom were under 10, appearing in the nude.

The reality is only about 1/4th of the photos exhibited featured a nude child.  Still, The New York Times ran a headline, “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann” , the San Diego Union Tribune quipped, “it may be art but what about the kids?” The Wall Street Journal published a photo of Mann’s youngest daughter Virginia cropped and censored as if the body of a four year old could be considered explicit content.

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Aperture/ WSJ/ Jessie’s letter

 

Suddenly Mann’s motherhood and artistic integrity was on trial. What kind of mother would release nude photos of her children into a world where paedophilia exists? (For context it’s helpful to remember this was the early 90’s, the internet didn’t exist as it did today, certainly not for the purposes of google image searching.) Was it ethical of her to snap pictures of her children’s injuries and mishaps before rushing to their aid? Can children even consent to posing nude when the photographer is a parent?

These are all valid questions and I’d like to pose one more, why was it a scandal for an artist to photograph the world around her as it appeared? It’s not as if this was the first time a photographer shot a nude, even an underage nude. Also, why is nudity so conflated with sexuality? Why are we willing to impose adult ideas about sexuality on kids? These are pictures of children, beautiful children yes, in a beautiful landscape but still, children. I think the reason why these photos were so well received was because of their honesty. Even the posed pictures have a rawness that pushes past Mann’s technical prowess to iconic status. What do these pictures evoke for you? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts, nude focused and otherwise.

 

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Sally Mann continues to take photos and publish books, she is represented by Gagosian Gallery in New York City and resides in Lexington, Virginia.

 

Link Love:

 

ALSO BY AKIKO:

APPROCHING THE BODY: IN SHAME AND JOY

FABARTS HISTORY: ALMA THOMAS

FABART ON VIEW: THE MENIL COLLECTION

FABART ON VIEW: OUTSIDER: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JUDITH SCOTT

FABART SPOTLIGHT: LYDIA LARSON

FABART ON VIEW: NICK CAVE TAKES DETROIT

 


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Akiko Surai, the Contributing Editor of Contemporary Art, is a visual artist and correspondent living in Southern California. Keep up with Akiko here.


 

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Comments

One Response to “The artist/mother, mother/artist, revisiting the work of Sally Mann”

  1. r0n hammond says:

    In the spirit of full disclosure: male, father of two daughters (and two sons), long time fan of Sally Mann’s work.

    Your discussion of her work is spot on. “Write what you know.” is common advice to writers. Well, “photograph what you know” works equally well.

    The disparaging of her work as “kiddy porn” in more-or-less explicit terms is much more a reflection of the critic than the artist.

    Throughout her career she has honestly and straightforwardly photographed what was important to — and immediately available to — her.

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