ebay ugg The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann
At the opening last spring of “Immediate Family,” Sally Mann’s show at the Houk Friedman Gallery in New York, the winsome young subjects of the photographs aroused as much curiosity as the artist herself. Motoring among the spectators like honorees at a testimonial dinner, Mann’s three children Emmett, 12, Jessie, 10, and Virginia, 7 looked completely at ease with the crowd’s prying adoration. While her mother and father conversed with friends and admirers, Jessie orbited the four rooms in her red dress, fielding questions from strangers eager to know more about her parents. Beneath a portrait of himself in the water, Emmett shrugged off the stares and expressed a typical teen age frame of mind. “These shoes cost $70,” he boasted about his opening night footwear. All three seemed unconcerned by the fact that on the surrounding white walls they could be examined, up close, totally nude.
The Mann children have endured scrutiny for some time now. Eight years ago, their mother began to chronicle their growing up the wet beds, insect bites, nap times, their aspirations toward adulthood and their innocent savagery. And the work that resulted has changed the lives of all involved.
Sally Mann was an accomplished photographer before the series, but in these intimate black and white portraits, exhibited piecemeal over the last several years, she struck a vein. The fears and sheltering tenderness that any parent has felt for his or her child were realized with an eidetic clarity. A half naked androgyne, smeared with dirt and grass stains, looks up from a leaf strewn yard. Lithe, pale shapes move with prideful ease among thick torsoed elders. The images seemed to speak of a familiar past that was now distant and irretrievable.
The vein has bled silver. Since the beginning of the year, Houk Friedman has taken orders for more than 300 prints, well over a half million dollars worth of photographs, and the waiting period for delivery of new prints is at least a year. Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world. And it will likely continue now that Aperture has published a monograph of “Immediate Family” in conjunction with a traveling museum show, opening on Oct. 29 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.
Not all the scrutiny has been welcome or favorable. The nudity of the children has caused problems for many publications, including this one. When The Wall Street Journal ran a photograph of then 4 year old Virginia, it censored her eyes, breasts and genitals with black bars. Artforum, traditionally the most radical magazine in the New York art world, refused to publish a picture of a nude Jessie swinging on a hay hook. And Mann’s images of childhood injuries Emmett with a nosebleed, Jessie with a swollen eye have led some critics to challenge her right to record such scenes of distress. “It May Be Art, but What About the Kids?” said the headline in an angry review in The San Diego Tribune.
Mann has so far been spared the litigation that surrounded the Robert Mapplethorpe shows. But a Federal prosecutor in Roanoke, Va., from whom she sought advice, warned Mann that no fewer than eight pictures she had chosen for the traveling exhibition could subject her to arrest.
Beyond issues of artistic license, Mann’s work has raised worrying personal concerns. The shield of motherhood can quickly become a sword when turned against her. If it is her solemn responsibility, as she says, “to protect my children from all harm,” has she knowingly put them at risk by releasing these pictures into a world where pedophilia exists? Can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits, even if especially if the artist is their parent? And apart from legal and epistomologic matters, is the work any good? Do these sensual images emerge from the behavior of her subjects or are they shaped by the taste and fantasies of the photographer for an affluent audience? Is it pandering or bravery, her willingness to photograph what other adults have seen but turned away from?
Walking through the rooms of the gallery, you could not help but wonder what Emmett, Jessie and Virginia will think about these photographs and about their mother, if not this fall, then in 5, 10 or 15 years. You can be sure that Sally Mann wonders, too.
THE DOORBELL AT THE Mann home in Lexington, Va., is a small, black, wrought iron breast. Visitors announce themselves by pressing a red nipple within the raised areola. Like the red metal dragons that line the driveway or the 20 by 24 inch blowups of the children in the foyer or the photograph on the living room wall of Sally Mann’s father, dead in his bathrobe, the doorbell seems designed to give a start to the uninitiated and to put some comic distance between the occupants and their neighbors. The same attitude of defiance is there in the cover portrait of “Immediate Family.” Bare chested with arms crossed or akimbo, the three little Manns level their gaze at the world.