In this essay I discuss Sally Mann’s work Immediate Family in relation to both utopian and dystopian themes. This body of work features 65 black and white images of her three pre-pubescent children, taken at their summer home in Virginia, USA. They were first exhibited in New York in 1990, before being published in 1992 as a book by Aperture.
The reception to this work was mixed and controversial. The book was met with both “great acclaim and discomfort” (Appleford, 2010). It was cited as “one of the great photography books of our time” (Sante 1995), whilst Mann herself was accused of “selling photographs of children in their nakedness for profit … an exploitation of the parental role” (Cantor, 1993).
Does her work show a utopian childhood, free from the restrictions of society, or is there a darker theme?
I am drawn to Sally Mann’s work, as a mother and photographer, who has also had the experience of spending long hot family summers in a rural environment. Photographing my own children playing; swimming in a river; bruised from falls or bitten by insects; laughing; crying; angry; dressing up and undressed.
Mann used an antique 8’x10’ bellows camera, and produced the images for Immediate Family as beautiful gelatine silver prints. Unusually, for a series of ‘portrait’ images, these were shot in landscape format – maybe because they were environmental rather than studio shots. The large format gives a romantic feel to children unselfconsciously playing, reading, acting and sleeping their way through endless hot summers days. So many facets of childhood, captured and frozen as a series of ‘moments’, isolated from context.
Mann has often said she adores her children, and so the focus of her world became the focus for her camera.
“I guess every parent thinks their child is the most amazing, marvellous thing ever on earth. I use my photographs to reflect that astonishment and gratitude” (Vile Bodies,1997)
Mann spent about 9 months a year printing images of her family; meaning she devoted as much time to carefully producing the images of her children as she did to produce each actual child. She used her hands and arms to dodge and burn; using them to craft and shape each image, much as she crafted and shaped their childhood.
Hirsch states that Mann’s images “…enhanced by the archaic quality of her prints and the old fashioned large-format camera she uses, evoke profound cultural fantasies of an innocent, ‘natural’ childhood.’ (Hirsch 1997); and I tend to agree.
Indeed, many of her images hark back to 19th century photographs and reference the established photographic canon. Undoubtedly, Mann’s ‘Goodnight Kiss’ has similarities with Julia Margaret Donaldson’s ‘Double Star’; ‘Popsicle drips’ is frequently linked to Westons ‘Neil’. The overall feeling of dirt and poverty captured on large format B&W film, slots into out cultural knowledge of Lange’s work, and the FSA photographic project.
The very first image in the series, ‘Damaged child’, shows Jessie with a swollen eye. The resemblance to Lange’s FSA work of the same name cannot be missed – indeed, Mann was obviously aware of it when she titled her image. Both girls have an angry, challenging glare and one squinting eye, unisex cropped hair, and both were carefully captured against a flat background on large format cameras. Yet Lange’s work was highly acclaimed, and Mann’s heavily criticised. Lange’s work was journalistic, so her ‘role’ was to create a ‘record’ of events; but Mann was a mother, and society said her role was to protect.
If Mann had not been the child’s mother would the image have been viewed differently? Undoubtedly so! As it was, the image was viewed out of context, and Jessie was portrayed by the media as a battered child at worse, or a neglected child at best. “What kind of mother would photograph an injured child?” they cried as they attempted to place the children in the middle of a dystopian, dysfunctional childhood of their own construction.
Yet the swollen eye was a result of a gnat bite, a minor, everyday occurrence that would be of no concern to most mothers across Europe and America. Mann states her images are of “…[her] children living their lives…of ordinary things every mother has seen”.
Parsons attempts to explain the public reaction to a photograph of such a minor ailment.
“When art photography is publicly exhibited it will be understood in relation to public codes already at play, such as those around motherhood and the protection of children.” (Parsons 2008).
Many of the images are collaborations between Mann and her children; combining imagination and real life, working together in an idyllic way that is unknown and unthinkable to many families. This shared endeavour and mutual respect adds weight to my view of an idyllic upbringing. The children were empowered to become both models and art directors and not the passive voiceless puppets some would have us believe.
Jessie states “I know what my mom likes sometimes, so I point it out to her.” (Woodward, 1992).
However, not all images were planned – some really did capture spontaneous play. One of my favourite images is ‘The perfect Tomato’ which forever freezes Jessie tiptoeing across a table. Mann was setting up her camera for another shot when she noticed Jessie tiptoeing across the table, so “I just put the film in and shot.” (Sally Mann in Aletti, 1992, 106). Jessie recalls that the only thing in focus was the tomato which gave the image its title “That was, like, sheer luck!” (Vile Bodies,1997)
The area of the image featuring Jessie is overexposed. The brightness of her form, her blond hair merging with the background, gives her an almost ethereal wood nymph feel. Virginia, sitting in the shade appears transfixed by this mythical being, whilst the adult, whose knee she sits on, seems oblivious to the magic around her.
If we apply Bates theories to this image it denotes a young naked girl, poised on a table scattered with tomatoes, watched by a younger girl and ignored by the only adult present. It’s a simple, imperfectly exposed image. However I feel this image connotes the innocence and grace of childhood. She is over exposed, and shines brightly, radiating purity. Her arms are drawn back, as if she has just landed from flight, indicating flights of fantasy and freedom from the chains of responsibility that bind adults to their own realm. The punctum is her foot, so elegantly poised, as she looks down at it. This draws you to the perfectly formed fruit on the table, undisturbed by her grace, hinting at the forbidden; and onto Virginia’s face, as she looks in wonder at her older sister, at what she could become. Finally you notice the adult in the deepest shade, disconnected from the image in front of her: the wonder of childhood veiled from her by the heavy cloak of responsibility.
Only 13 of the 65 images in the series show a degree of nudity, yet instead of seeing children at one with nature, free from the rules, restrictions and codes of adult society, critics have accused her of sexualizing her children. A ’Save the Children’ group staged a book burning, and the Immediate Family was considered in a pornography trial. At the time, Mann stated, “I think childhood sexuality is an oxymoron” (Woodward, 1992).
‘Jessie at 5’ caused controversy for a different reason. As in the previous example, Jessie is brighter than the other people in the frame. She is playing dress up, is partially clothed, and wears a little makeup and a string of beads. She confidently stares at her mother behind the camera. This image is often criticised for her ‘knowing look’, implying Jessie has lost the innocence of childhood, thus inferring that something sinister was happening.
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, 2004)
I believe this ‘look’ is a positive characteristic of Jessie, and shows a confident child playing a role, not afraid of scorn or criticism from the adults around her. This image of Jessie at 5 very much reminds me of one of my daughter taken on her 4th birthday.
Although they may initially appear very different, this is mainly due to climate!
Like Jessie, Rhowan was dressing up. She is wearing make up, pearls and evening gloves and, although her hand is coyly across her mouth, she engages with the camera, confident in her new ‘style’; her version of the world she sees around her.
“These girls still exist in an innocent world in which is pose is only a pose – what adults make of the pose may be the issue” (Osborne, 2006).
Its interesting to note that in the few photographs published of Emmett looking at the camera he has the same ‘look’ as Jessie – yet I can’t find a single example of condemnation for these images. Despite years of legislation on equality does American society still encourage boys to be confident, yet expect girls to remain submissive? If so, I would argue that Jessie and Virginia did indeed live in a mini utopia, in that they were allowed to express themselves freely.
The next image was viewed as extremely controversial when it was first published, and has continued to be so, although all the children were fully, clothed! I feel the connotations within this image are very different to the others in the series.
This, now iconic image, is of all three of the Mann children on a rural road or path. Jessie is most prominent in the frame, blond hair slightly unkempt, wearing a white sundress and holding, what appears to be, a cigarette. She gazes directly at the camera, with a slightly bored or disinterested expression. Next to her is the youngest, Virginia. She is slightly out of focus, facing away from the camera, with her hands on her hips, wearing a darker summer dress. In the background is Emmett. He is wearing white clothing, and is on stilts. He too is facing away from the camera, and is reduced to an unfocused blur.
The connotations in this image are complex, multi-layered and have changed over time. The main focus and message is clearly Jessie. Her white sundress is symbolic of childhood and innocence, her un-styled loose hair hints at summers days free from restrictions, yet her arm nearest the camera is drawn protectively across her body, and her shoulder is angled towards to the camera as if a physical block. Steward states that this is “Jessie clearly vamping for the camera” (Steward, 2000, 373), but I disagree. I feel that’s Jessie’s protective stance and pensive look show the tiring effect of the constant maternal gaze on her childhood games.
The Punctum is the white cigarette in her hand, standing out against the darker background, its bright tone matching it to her dress, making it ‘part of Jessie’. The linguistic sign, the title of the image, “Candy Cigarette” is at conflict with the prominent visual sign “cigarette”, but cultural knowledge is needed to read this and re-categorise the visual sign. Candy, or sweet, cigarettes were sold in corner shops for decades before the dangers of smoking were publicly realised and smoking became demonised. At the time this photograph was taken, the anti tobacco lobby was fast gaining support in the USA, and anti smoking posters were appearing around the country. The young girl in purest white, holding society’s newest ‘silent killer’ breaks another contemporary social taboo.
From a psychoanalytical viewpoint the cigarette can also be considered a phallic symbol. But, rather than the direct visual sign of the girl holding this symbol, it can be linked to the psychodynamic nature of the daughter–mother relationship in the Electra complex. This image, and this entire series, is a sequence of shared moments between mother and daughters (rarely does Emmett feature as a significant part of any image). Jung states that young girls repress the hostile female competition, for fear of losing the love of their mother. Its the internalization of “Mother” which leads to the development of the super ego as girls begin to establish a separate sexual identity. Hence this image could be viewed as Jessie (aged 10) on the threshold of moving from the state of androgynous child to a conscious sexual young woman. Is this the reason for her closed stance, in contrast to younger images of herself?
In contrast, Virginia stands in the shadows with her back to Jessie and her mother. Her hair is neatly tied back, her hands are on her hips as if judging her brothers antics. Other than her strong and maybe judgmental posture, we are given nothing more to read of Virginia. Maybe she is the balance in the image, the sensible side to Jessie’s rebelliousness? Emmett is nothing more than an enigmatic blur. Unfocused and disengaged, yet his bright clothes lift him from the shadows, and his stilts elevate him above his sisters, foretelling his future position in patriarchal American society.
Steward (2010) acknowledges the juxtaposition between the children mimicking adult’s behavior in role-play – and the adult’s interpretation of their play. “Her portrait of the 10-year old blonde daughter mimicking an adult smoking a (sweet) Candy cigarette has Lolita connotations but is also universal and typical of how girls play and pose.”
I think much of the controversy is because Mann’s photographs are very different to the socially constructed ideal of children’s portraits (both painted and photographed). Chambers (2003) examined family photo albums and stated that the ‘ideal’ family images they contained were the re-enactment of the socially constructed nuclear family, and not ‘authentic’ portraits. An image of a child in distress or unclothed is only socially acceptable in journalistic photography.
Dumbleton, a children’s portrait photographer describes the sort of photographs parents’ want of their children:
“They want a smile…the child looking out of the picture at them…with big, open, grinning eyes”…
“They want the baby to be saying to them, out of the picture, I love you. In the future, when they look back, they want to remember a happy childhood.”…
“It satisfies a need later on to realise that that child has been happy.” (Vile Bodies,1997)
Mann goes further to explain the ‘insipidness’ of mainstream children portraiture.
“I think most people are afraid to plumb the depths of children…they don’t know what’s in there and they are afraid to find out.” (ibid).
Therefore, it could be argued that accepted mainstream children’s portraiture aims to fulfil the emotional needs of the parent and not reveal the nature of the children, whereas Mann’s photographs were about exploring new ideas and concepts with and about her children.
In interviews at the time and more recently, both Mann and her children insist they collaborated in producing the images.
Sally (with Jessie and Virginia) explained:
“We’d take the picture, they would look at it…realise it wasn’t any good…we would talk abut what would make it better…and we would take it over again.” (ibid,1997).
I have worked on a few projects with my own children and can strongly identify with this. They are exciting projects to do, and the entire family looks forward to seeing and discussing the images, and working out what to do next. I believe, from personal experience, working and playing together builds strong family bonds and mutual respect in a way that authoritarian parenting cannot.
Higonnet (1998) states that Mann recognised an important cultural shift from the romanticised childhood, popular since Victorian times, to the era of the modern “knowing child”. This timing fits with the new era of the American child consumer. I argue that it was this visual shift that jarred with contemporary ideals of both childhood and of private/public that greatly fuelled the controversy around Mann’s family images.
However, Mann was not the first mother to recognise changing cultural values, and use her children to represent this shift on film. In 1861, Lady Clementina Hawarden, a contemporary of Julia Margaret Cameron, began to photograph her daughters. Unlike Cameron who printed and sold commercial images, Hawarden exhibited her images as ‘studies’. Like Mann, Hawarden’s images were of her daughters, and taken in their home in Kensington, London. Like the Mann family, the girls and their mother worked together and used a combination of their own clothes and items from dressing up boxes to create scenes that entwined the everyday with fantasy.
Just as Mann’s work with her children emerged to coincide with the era of the ‘knowing child’, Hawarden’s work confronted the Victorian construction of female and adolescent sexuality, with her daughters in (for the time) provocative poses. Mayer (1999) argues that the provocativeness of the poses was significant. In 1861, the year Hawarden began her work, the age of consent was raised from ten to twelve years. Maybe it was fear of accusations of ‘sexualisation’ that lead Hawarden to present her work as serious ‘studies’ and not in the commercial manner of Cameron?
Clementina Maude, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1862-3. Museum no. PH.457:230-1968, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The Mann children’s, and in particular Jessie’s, ‘knowing look’ has provided much fodder for critics. It IS a ‘knowing’ gaze, but not in the sexualised way the media present. They are ‘knowing’ because they are part of the process, and have confidence in what they doing. They have input at the creative stage, and they censor the results.
This can be seen in many portraits of children who are close to the photographer and engaged in the process. Yet, at some point in time, these have all been found ‘suspect’ and publicly criticised.
This image of my daughter Rhowan (aged 7) playing in the rain was the centre of controversy…due to the connotations people associated with it, and my husband and I faced many of the same criticisms as Mann had nearly two decades previously.
After the rain #1 (Nightingale 2009)
Unfortunately, in our current society the media is trained to look at the sexualisation of women, and more recently children – there is no education about empowered children, so without a cultural reference, this ‘look’ is misunderstood. In an attempt to ‘protect’ children by keeping them fully clothed, and condoning only a limited and safe range of ‘poses’ and expressions, society necessarily deems anything that contravenes this narrow view of acceptable children’s behaviour as sexualised. The Mann children were unaware of this proscriptive and dystopian view of family and community, where every person is a potential paedophile or abuser, until this ‘caring’ faction informed the children by its actions and censorship.
So does Mann’s work show utopian ‘free range’ childhood …or does it reflect a childhood sexualised, distorted and exploited by an authoritarian mother?
Mann describes trying to recreate her own happy, rural childhood for her family:
“There was a quality that went through my childhood living in the country; the wild naked freedom that I had as a child – that I think they had” (Vile Bodies,1997).
I think her images often demonstrate the freedom of their childhood; the freedom not to wear clothes if they chose, during the long, hot humid summers of VA; the freedom and to get dirty or go swimming without being reprimanded, the freedom to role play without censorship.
But what do the children now think about their childhood and images Mann took? Jessie recently said…
“Her [Sally] taking the images did nothing to us…What people put on them and what people wanted them to be or thought they were…that’s what hurt us”
“…The people who were trying to save us were the ones who were hurting us.”
“…I wanted to yell ‘No, I’m fine – YOU’RE hurting me!’” (ibid)
As the children got older they “outgrew their skins” and Mann said she ran out of ideas, and so returned to landscape photography. Were the children relived not to be in focus of a camera? Apparently not; Virginia said
“I felt kind of dejected….I was very upset. I didn’t like it at all.” (ibid).
In conclusion, I believe there can be no such thing as a truly utopian childhood, as ideals change with time, and utopia is something we will always strive towards. If Mann had made these images at the end of the 1960’s or early 1970’s I suspect the reaction would have been far less judgemental. But Mann’s work broke away from the traditional portraits of children and the 1980/90’s construction of childhood. While mainstream photographers were removing children from their environment and objectifying them for parental gratification (as had painters for 100’s of years), Mann’s photographs were an attempt to illustrate the nature and depth of children; and for this she became vilified by large sections of society. It was these attacks that caused the children distress, not the taking or showing of the photographs.
Although a utopian childhood may not actually exist, I think Mann’s children had a good childhood, and she shows this in her lovingly created portraits and tableaus. Mann stated that she wanted to recreate her own happy childhood, and there has never been any question that her children spent summers playing and swimming, surrounded by family and friends, at their summer home. I think the ‘knowing looks’ Mann captured show confidence, sadly lacking in so many children that adult’s can’t recognise it, and misinterpret (sexualise) the expression. The role-play was part of a family collaboration that gave the children a voice and a safe, caring environment to play and experiment.
The fact that the children expressed regret when the project was over confirms that they enjoyed being part of it. Jessie, the most enthusiastic model, continued modelling for other artists as she grew older. She later studied art and became a painter, but has also participated in a 5-year photographic project with Prince. ‘Sensible’ Virginia became a lawyer, like her father; and quiet, enigmatic Emmett joined the Peace Corps.
I think that the Mann children are lucky to have an authentic record of a normal, happy childhood, and of shared memories creating these images; and that the parents have something much more honest that the ‘Venture’ style ‘hi-key, white backdrop, smile at the camera’ portraits. Mann’s photographs have captured a real childhood – not recorded society’s current idea of it.
“Each of those photographs was her way of capturing, somehow – if not in a hug or a kiss or a comment – how much she cared about us. Each one of those photographs is an affirmation of love.”