Why was Sally Mann’s Immediate Family so controversial?

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Sally Mann - Candy Cigarette, 1989, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – Candy Cigarette, 1989, from Immediate Family

Published: December 16, 2019

Last updated:

Introduction

Immediate Family is a photography book produced in 1992 by Sally Mann. The book was published by the international quarterly journal Aperture and is made of 65 duotone portraits.

The book features exclusively Mann’s three children Virginia, Jessie, and Emmett, who are also in the front cover of the book. Thirteen of the images show nudity while three show minor injuries, Jessie with a cut and stitches, Emmett with a nosebleed, and Jessie with a black eye. Critics were quick to accuse Mann of sexualizing her children, instead of seeing the images as what it really is – with nature, free from restrictions, the rules, and codes of adult culture. A group called ‘Save the Children’ even organized a book burning, and this one (Immediate Family) was reflected in a pornography trial. At the time, the artist said, I think childhood sexuality is an oxymoron.

The images were taken between 1984 and 1991 in the rural parts of Virginia, where Mann and the children spent their childhoods. The photos in the series heed back to the 19th-century prints and reference the well-known photographic canon. It is not hard to tell the similarities between the images in Immediate Family and other works by the likes of Julia Margaret Cameron and Edward Weston.

Sally Mann - Gorjus, 1989, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – Gorjus, 1989, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann - Torn Jeans, 1990, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – Torn Jeans, 1990, from Immediate Family

The role of the children

Sally Man initially decided against publishing the book until ten years later after the last images had been taken. The reason for her reluctance was for her children to get a little bit older to understand the pictures. However, when two of her children Emmett and Jessie found out, they dissented, insisting that their mother – Sally Mann – publish the book sooner. The children, though, held power to dispute any photos being published. Virginia refused to let an image of her urinating appear in the book, while Emmet declined to allow a picture of him with his socks on his hands. According to Sally Mann, the kids seemed only concerned over being depicted as geeks and never bothered by nudity.

Mann has been quoted most of the time, saying that she loves her children. Thus, the focus of her world also became the focus of her camera.

I guess every parent thinks their child is the most amazing, marvelous thing ever on earth. I use my photographs to reflect that astonishment and gratitude.

Sally Mann - Black Eye, photographic negative 1991, printed 1992, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – Black Eye, photographic negative 1991, printed 1992, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann - Blowing Bubbles, 1987, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – Blowing Bubbles, 1987, from Immediate Family

Production

Something unusual about Sally Mann’s Immediate Family is that unlike many series of portrait pictures, hers were shot in landscape format, using an 8 X 10 view camera. The reason for this could be because the portraits were conservational rather than studio shots. The large size of the images, however, conveys a romantic to children unselfconsciously reading, playing, acting, as well as sleeping their way through infinite summer days. A lot of aspects of childhood captured and frozen as a portrait series of moments, isolated from the context.

Mann spent on average about nine months a year printing the photos of her family, which symbolically means she dedicated as much amount of time carefully producing the portraits of her children as she did to deliver each of her actual children. She used her bare hands and arms to dodge and burn as well as to craft and shape each portrait, similar to how she crafted and shaped hers and her children’s childhood.

Sally Mann - Emmett, Jessie and Virginia, 1994, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – Emmett, Jessie and Virginia, 1994, from Immediate Family

Spontaneous or staged photos?

A lot of snaps in the series are a relationship between the artist and her children, merging their imagination and real life, collaborating in an idyllic manner that is unknown and unthinkable to most of the families. This shared endeavor, as well as mutual respect, augments the weight to the viewer’s view of a serene upbringing. The children in the images were inspired to become models as well as art directors rather than being passive and voiceless puppets.

Mann’s daughter Jessie was quoted saying, I know what my mom likes sometimes, so I point it out to her.

While the images in the series seem planned, it turns out that is not the case. Some actually captured spontaneous play, for example, and image titled The Perfect Tomato. In the image, one of Mann’s children, Jessie, is treading across a table, while the artist was setting up her camera for another snap when she the child tiptoeing across the table. She says,

I just put the film in and shot.

Video: Immediate Family book

5 min 20 sec

Selected works

Damaged Child

The first image in Immediate Family is Damaged child, which shows Jessie with a black eye, and the resemblance to Lange’s FSA work is hard to miss. In both works, the little girls have an angry, challenging stare and one squinting eye, with unisex cropped hair, and were both carefully taken against a flat backdrop on large format cameras. As expected, the image was viewed out of context. The child was depicted by the media as battered at worse and neglected at best.

Sally Mann - Damaged Child, 1984, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – Damaged Child, 1984, from Immediate Family

What kind of mother would photograph an injured child? were cries of the critics as they try to place the children at the center of a dystopian, broken childhood of their own creation. However, the swollen eye was due to a gnat bite, something that is minor, everyday occurrence that would rarely be a cause for concern to most the parents. But Man says that here portraits are of …her children living their lives … of ordinary things every mother has seen.

In attempting to explain the backlash the images received from the public, photography professor Sarah Parsons says:

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.

The Perfect Tomato

The image (The Perfect Tomato) is a bit overexposed, and the brightness of her form, her blond hair blending with the background, makes the girl look like an ethereal wood nymph. Another child, Virgin can be seen sitting in the shade and looks like transfixed by this mythical creature, while the person (an adult) whom she sits on the knee, seems unmindful the mystic around her. Jessie herself says that the only thing she could recall was the tomato, which eventually gave the image its title.

Jessie at 5

Another image from Immediate Family, titled Jessie at 5, also caused controversy. Just like in Perfect Tomato, in this, she is also brighter than other characters in the frame – her siblings. She is playing dress-up, and is half-dressed, wearing a little makeup alongside a string of beaded-necklace on her neck. She is confidently staring at the photographer (her mother, Sally Mann) behind the camera. Critics claim that Jessie has a knowing look in this image, implying that she has lost her childhood innocence, thus surmising that something creepy is going on.

What adults understand as the sexuality of children is always defined by the adult world; in this view, childhood is not fixed but culturally produce.

– Edge, Baylis, 2004.

However, others don’t see anything wrong with that “look” by Jessie; instead, they believe it is indicative of a confident child paying her role, which she is not afraid of criticism or scorn from the grownups around her.

Video: Sally Mann interview

7 min 16 sec

Analysis

The reception of Sally Mann’s Immediate Family shows how the social order was, and sadly, still not ready to accept a mother trying to be an artist, mainly when she uses her kids with the aim of conveying her messages. Some critics have even gone as far as arguing that Mann didn’t have the right to take shots of her own children the way she did in Immediate Family. According to them, it damages their image as we as the image of the children in the long run, especially seeing that it portrayed the children as something they actually were not.

But Mann just wanted to address particular ideas that were pretty common at the time, but the world had issues openly discussing it. It can be said that she directed a taboo subject and made it easy and possible for the society to recognize that people did not want to discuss the plainly ordinary concepts.

Sally Mann - The New Mothers, 1989, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – The New Mothers, 1989, from Immediate Family

Many observers interpreted the images as an assault on society decency. However, Mann was trying to put across her ideologies. For critics, Immediate Family is damaging because of two main reasons:

First, it influences children to adopt defiant attitudes on account of how the children in Mann’s series appear to act in disagreement with what is socially accepted norms and values.

And secondly, it distorts society’s understanding of children by presenting them in more sensual and violent positions.

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud states that the public is inclined to look at things from a different or wrong perspective, therefore agreeing with Mann’s thinking with Immediate Family. According to the psychoanalyst, there is much more to children’s seemingly innocent plays than some might think.

We see that children repeat in their paly everything that has made a great impression on them in actual life, that they thereby abreact the strength of the impression and so to speak make themselves masters of the situation. But on the other hand, it is clear enough that all their play is influenced by the dominant wish of their tie of life: Viz. To be grownup and to be able to do what grownup people do.
– Sigmund Freud, 1922

Sally Mann - Night-blooming Cereus, 1988, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – Night-blooming Cereus, 1988, from Immediate Family

Why does this series matter?

Despite the numerous controversies Immediate Family generated, it also embodied a turning point in history. The book can be virtually be considered to be a standing proof in relation to who the public has very limited knowledge of children’s behavior and thinking as they abstain from getting involved in the topics that the society often classify as being immoral.

The sections of people who supported Immediate Family were dominantly women who believed that her representation of her children was brave because she dared to highlight both the complexity and tenderness of human nature. This unusual type of sensibility was for man people, characteristic of the fear and pain that a mother has when considering her children.

With Immediate Family, Mann appears to have reinvented the classical efforts of a mother to raise her children by adopting the elements of photography. It is like Mann is no assuming the role of a mother and that her collaboration with her children while taking these images was mainly focused on the photographer-subject relationship. Sexual frankness and sensuality are mostly used in Immediate Family to serve the purpose of changing the understanding of the public on children.

The book does not necessarily mean that Mann wanted to present her children as being sexual; instead, she simply wanted to raise the awareness concerning the fact the children are just as innocent as one might be inclined to believe. It should be pointed out that many children are actually aware of the ideas that are primarily considered to be immoral by society. It is essential for them (children) to be offered education regarding the approaches they need to take as far as the unethical concepts are concerned.

Sally Mann - The Ditch, 1987, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – The Ditch, 1987, from Immediate Family

Mann’s motherhood played a crucial role in persuading many to feel that the images were actually not meant to harm the generally accepted norms.

For some, her role as a mother served as proof that she did not intend to exploit children for the sake of notoriety, while for others it reinforced the pity they felt towards her ‘helpless art-abused children.

– Attwood, Campbell, Hunter, and Lockyer 118.

Immediate Family did not only succeed in prompting controversies regarding her children in particular as well as her family in general but also managed to draw attention to the 19th-century photographs featuring children. She successfully opened the public eyes concerning a number of realities about children as well as about society in general.

Sally Mann - The Last Time Emmett modeled Nude, 1987, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – The Last Time Emmett modeled Nude, 1987, from Immediate Family

Conclusion

There is no such thing as a perfect childhood. Ideals change with time, and therefore, utopia is something the world will always strive towards. The general consensus is that if Mann had developed these images during the late 1960s or early 1970s, the reception wouldn’t have been that judgmental. Nevertheless, the work still managed to break away from the traditional represented of children as well as the constriction of childhood by the 1980s and 1990s era.

Sally Mann - Vinland, 1992, from Immediate Family

Sally Mann – Vinland, 1992, from Immediate Family

All images: Sally Mann/sallymann.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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