I really like the images. These are taken on a large format camera which is hard to transport, hard to focus and with glass negatives even harder to print. However, that shows the commitment Sally Mann has to her project.
The images are in some cases just pure beauty and in others stomach churning. However, the images all have impact and its like a pictorial history of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Different continent, same events.
Yes there is nudity of children burt as the Afterwood suggests this was a time when such was acceptable and the children were willing models. These are family photos following the life of the Manns and a real disruptive record it is.
Certainly will take pride of place in my collection of photography books.
The image, Virginia at 6, is simple and beautiful. Her arms stretch upwards, her body arched. She stands on a shore next to a river. Her wet hair sticks to her side mirroring the ripples of the water. Her head is turned towards the camera and she casually gazes into the lens. Her pose is mystical, almost mermaid like. She stands in harmony with her surroundings. In this pose Mann has captured a moment of her daughter’s life before it is gone forever. The look in Virginia’s eyes draws in the viewer. She gazes directly at the camera and, through the lens, directly into the eyes of the viewer. Mann uses contrast to draw the viewers into the picture. Virginia’s figure is shrouded in light which highlights the curvature of her body.
Whilst some viewers might argue that the image is scattered with sexual connotations, nudity was clearly an accepted and natural part of Mann’s domestic environment. Although it is not intended to be a sexual image, the fact that the child is naked makes some viewers uncomfortable and challenges their thoughts on what is acceptable. Few artists who challenge the conventional ideals of childhood are as deliberately provocative as Mann. One perspective 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 perspective is that the taking of such intimate photographs is complicated and ambiguous as evidenced by the withdrawal of certain photographs from public display due to their perceived pornographic element. Susan Sontag states in 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. 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 and that, as long as the end result is interesting, nothing else really matters. Sally Mann falls victim to this concept, seeing her children as artistic objects, encouraging them to pose in such a way as to enhance 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 6, 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. The children have become objects of art possessed by Sally Mann, which many would argue is distasteful.
Perhaps Mann’s instinct to take portraits of her children is based on an effort to preserve a physical moment which after the shutter clicks has already started to fade away and change. In metaphorical terms Susan Sontag articulated that ‘to photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability, precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’. For some, photographs create memories, for others it is simply art.
Sally Mann is clearly a very influential, controversial and accomplished photographer. She has the ability to take sensitive but 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.
“Few photographers of any time or place have matched Sally Mann’s steadiness of simple eyesight, her serene technical brilliance, and the clearly communicated eloquence she derives from her subjects, human and otherwise – subjects observed with an ardor that is all but indistinguishable from love.”
— Reynolds Price, TIME