With her new memoir Hold Still out this week, Sally Mann looks back on a lifetime spent seeking the beauty in familial intimacy. Whether it’s taking photo’s of corpses decomposing, the rotting tree roots of the American South, or her husband’s failing body, Mann’s camera affixes to it’s subjects with a sometimes haunting detail. But she is undoubtedly best known for the photos she took of her children, which caused a national outcry due to their perceived erotic nature, which sparked intense debates on art and censorship. This essay on Mann’s work appeared in Nerve 1998 around the time of the controversy.
On the cover of Sally Mann’s Immediate Family, her three young children stand in three different postures of nole me tangere — don’t touch me. Mouths set, absolutely not smiling, they stare dead on into the eye of the camera, into the eye of whoever would dare stare at them. And yet they are bare-chested, and their chests look touchingly vulnerable, undeveloped. Their arms, though tightly held in defensive positions, are thin. Though they have mustered their most defiant faces, these faces look mustered. Even these fierce children cannot help but look like children.
And, bare-chested, with their thin arms, their faces of mustered defiance, they have been captured, preserved, stilled in one of their mother’s stills. They are transfixed, this fierce little triptych, on the cover of her book, and I who have bought it can stare at them as long and hard as I want.
And yet, the very mother who has delivered them up unto me has also kept something back. For, again and again, when I open the book and look through the collection of photographs, I see that she has captured them at precisely this moment, on precisely this edge, when they resist being captured and where they draw back into themselves. In fact, looking through the black-and-white photographs of these children, I get the same feeling I’ve had looking at certain long-ago photographs of Native Americans, portraits that managed to preserve that fleeting moment when a conquered people still rest so deeply in their own dignity that they can stare back into the eye of the conquering people with a look that says, There is something about me that will never be yours.
And, taking this edge to the very edge, isn’t this the look that Sartre said was the last province of the oppressed? Even as the torture victim, as the prisoner about to be executed is stripped of the last shred of autonomy, there is something that he still possesses. For he can stare back into the eye of his torturer, his executioner with a look that says, I see you, I see what you are doing to me, and in this very seeing I declare myself separate, I withhold the conscious spark of my existence even as you snuff that existence out.
WHOA! Let’s not get carried away . . . These are a mother’s photographs of her three young children—Emmett, Jessie, Virginia—in various moments of old- fashioned childhood: wading in water; sleeping in fields; playing a board game; trying on glamour; bearing the scuffs, scratches, dirt and bites of young life lived au nature. Why even bring up the subject of torture, execution?
Because there is something distinctly noir in these photographs, something with teeth that lurks in even the dreamiest of them. In one of the very few in which one of the children is smiling, she is standing only inches away from a recently killed deer. The curve of her body echoes the curve of the carcass as it hangs over the rear of a pick-up—yet her look, with its vague and utterly private smile, could not be farther away from the animal’s plight. Dressed in a white sequined ballerina dress, she sheds no tears. She is as sealed-off in her fantasy world as the deer in its death.
In other photographs, the bodies of the children look almost as if they, like the deer, had been rendered inanimate. Their postures look strewn, draped, crumpled, flung. In one, the smallest girl, with her beautiful pre- Raphaelite face, lies sleeping outside among what appear to be stuffed burlap bags. In her sleep she looks utterly innocent, as if she’d suddenly just surrendered her heaviness to the ground. The bags echo this posture of surrender—as if someone had whispered “trust your weight to the earth”—yet they also look somewhat ominous, like those fairy-tale bags into which Three Little Kids might be stuffed by a wolf, or those bags in which kittens and stones are flung into rivers, the kind of bag into which this very child herself might be stuffed.
In many of the photographs, the children’s skin—the very skin that another photographer might preserve in its smoothness, softness and young shine —is gritty, dusty, sprinkled with leaves, covered with pox. In part, these dirty-skin pictures come through as an ode to the freedom of childhood. But other tones resonate too: the same bodies that look simply at home in the natural world can also look as though they were simply left to return to the natural world—as in, decompose. Although there is not a picture of a child’s stilled, naked body covered with ants, such a picture would not look at all out of place in the collection. And many of the photographs—a pair of thin legs coated in flour paste, a belly and penis splattered with popsicle drips, a wounded face through surgical gauze—come very close to the sort of blown-up symptomatic parts one sees in medical texts.
In some of the photographs, there’s a duck/rabbit quality. You see a scene of serene, picturesque childhood and then you blink your eyes and something seamy appears, something that threatens to cross over into danger in the form of violence, poverty, grief, neglect. Uncovered, an angelic child lies fast asleep in bed, her hair, which one easily imagines to be soft and golden, in a blur around her head. You look again and see a vast urine stain spread out below her—and indeed, this dreamy photo is not entitled Dreams, it’s entitled Wet Bed. Not too horrifying, perhaps—but still, it’s a jolt, and in others the jolts do get sharper. In Emmett Afloat you see a boy, voluptuously at ease on the earth, stretched out on an expanse of rippled sand that looks like water. Look again, and you see a child’s corpse, abandoned.
In Hayhook, you see the very white body of a naked girl suspended against a dark backdrop of house, tree, and family members, none of whom is looking at her. “Such innocent play,” a friend said to me. He saw a girl, swinging, utterly at ease in her naked body, in the bosom of her family. But what I saw reminded me of the very first time I even learned that there was such a thing as child abuse. I was eight years old when I came across a newspaper article about a girl who was left to hang naked by her wrists from the showerhead while her family went about its business. And yes, a number of the photographs seem just about to erupt into something vividly erotic: two huge white blossoms, Night-blooming Cereus are draped over a child’s nipples; the soft roundness of a little girl’s body is nestled between the plump hairy thighs of a man; boys and girls stare into the camera with the mixed-message, come-on looks of soft-porn models, looks that say both, “Try me” and “Don’t dare.”
It’s no wonder that Sally Mann’s photographs of children are considered controversial. Certainly they are a world away from those Ann Geddes babies, plastered on cards and calendars, who might so easily receive a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Yet it is these babies—plopped in flowerpots, beaming out from garden beds, their dimpled faces glimpsed through bunches of hydrangeas, their plump limbs wiggling on a sea of petals—who are being unabashedly offered up for adult consumption.
What came back to me, in a kind of rush, as I let myself enter the world of Sally Mann’s Immediate Family, is something that is hard to acknowledge, hard to express. I remembered how often, when my daughter was small, I would become palpably aware of how vulnerable she was to me—how easily I could hurt her: drop her, crush her, violate the boundaries of her delicate body. I can honestly say that this awareness carried no desire for me—although it did sometimes carry the anxiety that I might experience such desire. It was a feeling not unlike holding a very delicate object—something porcelain or glass—and knowing, as part of my sense of the beauty and preciousness of this object, how easily I might drop it to the floor and let it shatter. Isn’t this awareness, this fine line between appreciation and anxiety, desire and restraint, an essential part of the experience, say, of drinking wine from a crystal glass?
It’s this fine line that Sally Mann walks on. She comes so close to trespassing—and yet she doesn’t. No matter how naked and vulnerable the bruised, smudged, stilled, strewn bodies of her children may appear, they retain something inviolate. It’s there in the gaze that looks back at her, and through her eyes at the eyes of anyone else who might stare at them. And it’s there even when her children’s eyes are shut—though she steals upon them in sleep, she manages to present them in a sleep that utterly belongs to them, and to them alone.
Even when Sally Mann renders her children thing-like, the photographs radiate a consciousness of what she’s done: when not in the defiant gaze of the children themselves, then in the photographs’ utter refusal to euphemize, to prettify the thing-ness.
Which is really the more dangerous vision of children: the one that presents them to us, scrubbed and cute among flowers, as decor, accessory? Or the one that acknowledges the edges we walk on? As Jung said: it’s what remains unconscious that returns as fate.