I was browsing Lenswork’s forums and came across this post and its responses — obviously made at the same time (and by the same person) as this post on streetphoto. In both, Jason/Manic worries that if he buys a copy of Sally Mann’s book Immediate Family, the police may show up at his door, sent by some conservative Bible-Belt neighbor, to arrest him for possesion of child pornography.
This was posted a month ago, and my answer seemed close to that of the rest of the list members:
“Bad enough if you shoot photographs while worrying about what other people might think.
“Far worse if you will only LOOK at photographs while worrying what other people might think.”
When I read the Lenswork post, I was surprised to see the readers there seemed to have mostly very different reactions, such as: “goes too close to the line of being pornographic” (and quickly tossing Jock Sturges into the stew while they’re at it). For a forum whose function is to hash-out issues of art photography, I felt I had had to respond: “it is absurd to be afraid to look at beautiful things.”
What happened next was something of a surprise: a rather volatile response from editor Brooks Jensen against Mann’s portraits of her children. Not for the typical conservative reasons of affront to public decency: “It’s not about pornography or bigotry. It’s not about politics. It’s about trust and parenting and her crossing the line”…“her concerns about her career are more important to her than the concerns/welfare of her children.” And that gave me a fair bit of crashing and colliding coincidental personal pause, because of an incident from just this morning.
Just before school, my son saw himself in the Family, Immediate photo and was upset — that I had made the photo while he was furious at his sister. It was not a photograph he wanted to see. And worse yet, I had put the photo on the web.
Now a photo of a scowl is quite a ways from a bookful of nude children, but it was defused in an instant: “look, it’s a photo of you, but also your sister, your cousins, your auntie… see how the different expressions combine, how the spirits are high with different kinds of feeling? How your expression gives strength to the others by contrast?” and he walked away perfectly happy with that. I asked him again this evening, and he had been happy with the idea that his experience had found meaning (if not exactly in those words from him). Do Mann’s children discuss these photos with her, with each other? Of course they do.
I was unaware of Sally Mann’s work until it was pointed out to me about a decade ago, in comparison to shots I was making (like the one on the front page of Botzilla) of my own children. I was instantly in awe of her photos and could only feel that Mann had a great love for her children. I felt that she, like I, felt a large measure of awe herself — awe at the world that children inhabit, the freshness and tactility of it, the processes of discovery and fantasy and growth. These are themes that I find it hard to believe she would be connected to at the expense of her children — rather, they are shared.
Aperture in fact interviewed Mann’s daughter Jessie, now grown, on this topic.
I was also surprised at Brooks’s question: “What else do Sally Mann and Jock Sturges photograph other than naked children?” When in fact neither of them are very active in that direction at this point. Sally Mann, as documented here and here and here on PBS, has moved on to other, though similarly lyrical, subjects — most recently in her book and show, What Remains.
“I want people to have to accept the existence of beauty where they would never expect to find it,” even “in death.”
Jock Sturges, meanwhile, has been likewise busy with less-contentious photographs — the April 2001 B&W featured clothed, close 8×10 portraits of Irish children that in their immediacy are among the most beautiful photos I’ve ever seen. I have come back to them over and again.
Brooks opines (and this is troublesome): “there is an entire world out there just waiting to be photographed. Why choose an area that is so likely to be controversial?” Yet the subjects of life, change, beauty, harshness, physicality, mortality, and love — these are core elements to our existence, far more important than picturesque rocks and trees. They are awesome and terrible and beautiful. How could one possibly turn away from such things?
Is there shock value here? (Ref to Lenswork Quarterly #11, BTW)? Compared to the sort of shock value we see in advertising and news media, or deliberate attention-grabbers like Jeff Koons, well, no. Yet the shock is there, a shock at the realization of the raw immediacy of existence. In my mind, this is photography at its finiest — clutching at the ephemeral and momentary, writing it on the page to hold fast time.
Somewhere a decade ago, I read Sally Mann describing a few of the things she felt she had learned as an artist, and one was that “the rose is the most beautiful past the peak of its bloom, just touched by decay.” The truth of this notion has stuck with me ever since.
Brooks asks: “If the children in all their photographs were fully clothed, would we still think they were interesting photographs?” I think the answer should be self-evident.