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‘I Was Blinded By The Controversy’: Sally Mann Publishes An Excerpt From Her Forthcoming Memoir

Sally Mann's photo "White Skates" (1990). COURTESY THE NEW YORK TIMES

Sally Mann’s photo White Skates, 1990.

The New York Times Magazine published an excerpt from photographer Sally Mann’s forthcoming memoir, “Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs,” which will be out in May. Mann is best known—or is most infamous—for her third collection, “Immediate Family,” which first showed in 1990 at Edwynn Houk Gallery in Chicago. The photos depicted intimate pictures of her children (about a quarter of which were nudes), and Time magazine awarded her “America’s Best Photographer” in 2001. Her work was featured in a New York Times Magazine cover story by Richard B. Woodward in 1992, in which Woodward wrote, “Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world.” “Enjoyed” could just as easily be replaced with “suffered,” judging by Mann’s account of receiving child pornography and incest accusations. Below is a summary of Mann’s somewhat contradictory defense, using quotes from the article.

-Mann was “blindsided by the controversy,” which coincided with a debate about the sadomasochistic imagery in Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of children. “I had put forth my family pictures…I thought my obscurity and geographic isolation [Lexington, Virginia] would shield me,” she writes.

-Mann says that informed consent was crucial to the creation of this collection. In Woodward’s article, Mann actually explained that she initially intended to wait to publish the photos until her children had grown and could fully understand the implication of the photos. (Here is perhaps where her judgment faltered.) Her children disagreed with this decision; they encouraged her to publish the photos immediately, so she did.

She avers,

“…the kids were visually sophisticated, involved in setting the scene, in producing the desired effects for the images and in editing them. When I was putting together ‘Immediate Family,’ I gave each child the pictures of themselves and asked them to remove those they didn’t want published.”

-Mann then inserts a devil’s advocate paragraph. In it she says,

“Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I actually was, as some New York Times letter—writers suggested, ‘manipulative,’ ‘sick,’ ‘twisted,’ ‘vulgar.’ It should make no difference to the way the work is viewed. If we revere only works made by those with whom we’d happily have our granny share a train compartment, we will have a paucity of art.”

-For advice, Mann called the F.B.I.’s Kenneth Lanning, a former member of the behavioral science unit. His professional opinion:

“He said what I already knew: that some people would be aroused by these pictures. And then he said: ‘But they get aroused by shoes, too. I don’t think there is anything you can take a picture of that doesn’t arouse somebody.’”

-Mann insists that her children were not stereotypically “innocent”; they were far more dynamic. “They are also wise, angry, jaded, skeptical, mean, manipulative, brooding and devilishly deceitful,” she writes.

On a related note, when her daughter, Jessie, was asked why she felt comfortable with showing nude photos of her to the world:

 “Jessie was…perplexed at the friend’s reaction: ‘Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are [just] photographs.’”

Exactly, Mann agrees. “These are not my children at all,” she writes. “These are children in a photograph. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind and shade.”

-For six years, Mann’s family received perverted messages from a man who lived in an adjoining state. He wrote, called, tried to obtain information about the children from their school, and kept up with their local newspaper for updates. In one letter, he said he was “bedridden with lovesickness for the Mann children.” Virginia, one of Mann’s children, has nightmares about him to this day.

-In the essay, Mann discusses her self-awareness as a photographer. She says,

“And I must [photograph] with both ardor and cool appraisal, with the passions of eye and heart, but in that ardent heart there must also be a splinter of ice.”

But later on, when defending her decision to publish the photos:

“When I saw their bodies and photographed them, I never thought of them as being sexual; I thought of them as being simply, miraculously and sensuously beautiful.”

The splinter of ice had apparently melted.

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