Sally Mann and the elephant in the room

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Recently I followed a discussion on Facebook about a picture someone had uploaded to an open group of film photographers. The picture itself was a staged upskirt shot of a 20 year old model in a setting inspired by American high schools. It was banned from the group not because of its content but its caption, since it implied that the model might be underage. Immediately a heated discussion about censorship and morals ensued that, as a woman, was quite surreal to read. The picture itself was part of a series and all of them seemed to be rather unspectacular variations of a common theme: Slightly pornographic pictures of a pretty girl in suggestive poses, eating lollipops and chocolate bars while exposing her panties. The pictures were so stereotypical and so obviously sexual that the discussion around them immediately struck me as a bunch of guys protecting their right to share and look at panty pictures. At some point, people started throwing the word “Art” around – ludicrous to me in the context – and one participant in the discussion objected to the notion that the photographer might have intentioned the pictures to be sexual – naively ignoring the lollipop and the suggestive poses. Of course, the people defending the pictures were all men, appalled that a picture without any nudity was banned from a Facebook group.

The confusion lies in the quick and misguided judgment that all nudity is automatically sexual and everything else is not, which is obviously the moral basis of the Facebook community standards. That these particular pictures might be perceived as overtly sexual without depicting any nudity at all was quickly judged as a puritan or frigid attitude, illustrated by one of the discussion participants inappropriately asking me whether I myself had seen anything “really pornographic” if I found those pictures to be pornographic.

The same blind and automatic judgment equating nudity with sexuality was also what made Sally Mann’s pictures of her Immediate Family so controversial when they were first published in 1992. The pictures showed her children playing, often naked, in the isolation of the family farm. In the discussion around the panty pictures many participants could not conceive how pictures without any nudity could be pornographic, whereas Sally Mann had to face harsh criticism from those who could not disengage nudity from sexuality, just on the other end of the spectrum. I myself have admired her work since the first time I encountered it and I don’t find the pictures questionable myself. I only see the traces of a happy childhood and of the love of a mother.

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In her wonderful autobiography and personal history Hold Still Sally Mann describes with surprising honesty the reactions she encountered after a particularly negative interview in the New York Times Magazine:

[The letters] that stabbed me to the quick were the Bad Mother letters. If I was anything, I was a damned good mother, walking the razor-sharp line between being a “cool mom,” as Woodward [the journalist] described me, and being the old-fashioned mom who insisted on thank-you letters, proper grammar, good conversational skills, considerate behavior, and clean plates, no matter what was on them. […] Even at the time, anguished over these opinions and predictions, I knew that the crucial question for me as a mother was not whether the pictures were going to be respected in twenty years, but this all-important one: “I wonder how those poor, art-abused kids turned out.” (p.138-139)

She concludes:

I also made many mistakes, as parents do, and I went through some powerful and painful self-examination. But, all the same, the Bad Mother accusation just couldn’t stick, because taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering, and the kids knew the difference. When I stepped behind the camera, and they stepped in front of it, I was a photographer and they were actors and we were making a photograph together. (p. 140)

This got me thinking about how far our roles as women / men / mothers / fathers / intellectuals / readers / tv-audience / democrats / communists shape and influence our work despite our attempts to disengage from these roles to a certain extent. Although Mann is of course right in that there is a distinct difference between her children as they sat at her kitchen table talking about school and the children in her photographs, it is quite obvious that they are still present. The same aura that is left over of Mann’s sitters even when they are playing a role, also remains as an aura of Mann’s love in the final pictures. Whoever sees something else should probably question their own mind in their role as the viewer rather than the intentions that went into the production of these pictures. To me the pictures survive the controversy precisely because they still have so much of the love of a mother in them. The mothering and picture taking might have been separate acts but Mann was still very much present in her role as the loving mother who takes care of all the scrapes and bruises, the wet beds and the insect stings.

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The delicate balance between fiction and reality, between the role the children are playing and their real characters, the simultaneous presence and absence of Sally Mann and her children in these pictures is what makes them so captivating to the viewer. These pictures don’t pretend to show a reality up to documentary standards, in fact Mann rejects this notion vehemently, and yet that reality permeates them with such intensity that it almost pours off the page. In the end we can’t hide from the camera, no matter whether we are in front of it or behind it. Our roles stay with us even when we think that we can disengage from them.

As a photographer who also happens to be a woman and who is actually interested in the problem of gender, the importance of my own role as a woman has occasionally crept into my own work too, although I have (somewhat on purpose) avoided to address this role directly. Time and time again I find myself tiptoeing around the issue, pondering the implications both of addressing my role and not addressing it. My role as a woman has probably made me take certain pictures and avoid others and, quite likely, it has also influenced the perception that others have of my work. A great number of women photographers, however, engage with their roles in a more direct way. As a result, they get derided as “Momtographers” or “Feminists” depending on how aggressively they tackle subject matters that interest women. Other women desperately try to adopt a male gaze to avoid such labels and their role remains obvious in faint quotation marks around their adopted visual style. I have tried to avoid these traps and still can’t take my feminine perspective out of my pictures. No matter how hard we try to get away from the stereotypes of the “female artist”, the “mother”, the “feminist” we stay trapped by the aura we leave in our pictures. And, as I have learned, tiptoeing around the elephant in the room without prodding him too often doesn’t help either: Even then the issue reappears openly, for example, when men condescendingly offer to explain the difference between pornography and art, or in the form of unsolicited advice given under the assumption that women cannot take pictures unassisted.

Is there a solution? Can we expel that alien presence of imposed traditional roles and stereotypes which take our work hostage sometimes? Like with so many elephants in the room, you cannot get rid of him without breaking down some walls. And even then you may still encounter him in the wild later. If you don’t want to make him the focus of your work it helps to sometimes speak about him, like I am doing now, and then hide him behind a big flowery curtain so as not to go insane. But then, soon enough he will poke his trunk out and trumpet for attention again. It’s just what elephants do.

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All images by Sally Mann.

Sources:

Sally Mann, Immediate Family, New York: Aperture 1992. Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, New York: Little, Brown and Company 2015.