Sally Mann has spoken about her love for 19th century cameras with their unwieldy glass plates and chemicals, their desirable (to her) flaws and imperfections that have developed over time. She says of her daughter, Virginia, that she looked like someone from another century.
Motherhood in Arcadia, the American landscape that contextualizes the images, is boundless, idealized, softly lit. A radiant Eden. The backdrops can evoke the luminous paintings of Bierstadt or Cole, dreamscapes that herald surrealism. (Mann said she found her way to landscape paintings when she found herself withdrawing from the children and her figures becoming smaller as their surroundings occupied the frame.)
There is so much tough beauty in these pictures. Mann designs a complex, humanistic world, both romanticized and real (except for shame). Beneath the nudity, the injuries, the sleeping, the blood, the shrouds, the dead animals, the bright sun, the elegant girl with the candy cigarette, the younger, glamorous girl with the heart-shaped sunglasses, and the handsome boy with his collection of bracelets, that adorn his left wrist, the kiss, there is no shame. Often looking directly and steadily into the lens, these children are not embarrassed or shy. No matter how intimate or explicit the image is, they own it.
Americans seem to think of art in binary terms – you like it or you don’t like it; you understand it or you don’t understand it; You’re a crowd pleaser like the French Impressionists, or you’re Francis Bacon—and Mann’s work doesn’t fit into that system. The children in these pictures are complicated, neither perfect nor tainted.
You open a book of Robert Mapplethorpe’s works and you see a man peeing in another man’s mouth, and of course you say: Mapplethorpe. He is allowed – nay, expected – to give an advantage to his work. He could even do a series of flowers and still avoid being labeled as cute or his paintings just “pretty.”
The reality of Mann’s art—the setups, the poses, “the uncomplicated, everyday storytelling”—is a parable of the artist’s mother.
Women have a challenge in that historically they have been sent indoors and then when they paint, photograph or write about domestic life, no matter how abstract they abstract the experience, it is dismissed as art without weight, or substance.
For anyone who has ever been to a zoo and watched a tiger step and step and step and step, that should give you an idea of what it means to kill yourself to get into college, then kill yourself to get that degree to do, and then kill yourself to have this career just to give it all up. Or a need to make art so strong that it rivals everything else in your life.
Perhaps “domestic art” is not yet perfected, but perhaps the critics, when copying these books (pictures, paintings), have overlooked that they are often about a struggle, and perhaps part of the struggle is in the making of the book, picture, painting itself.
The hue and scream across Mann’s images – although it has faded over time – was so satisfying to me, a writer with one child, because it compelled the public to see this life at home as if for the first time to really see it would domesticity, that social sphere, be as unsettling and thorny and as important as any other aspect of human experience. No less experience. Not inconsequential, then kissed. Flannery O’Connor wrote, “It is good to remember that the serious novelist always writes about the world, no matter how limited his particular scene.”
When I have a favorite picture of immediate family it could be 1989’s Holding the Weasel. I love the girl’s grip on the dead weasel. Anyone who has ever seen the unintentionally brutal treatment of a very young child with, say, a kitten or a duckling will recognize this girl’s thoughtless but firm grip on that animal. She looks to the side, her pose of nonchalant confidence, showing neither mercy for the limp weasel nor cruelty, for that’s just the way life is.
I like Jessie at 5, 1987, with her rhinestone earrings and pearls, and The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987 (because it was the last time), and the picture of the three kids, taken in 1989, where you see it like that tough and daring looking and young in all the right ways.
I have kept a journal about my son since he was born. It’s random, impulsive – I didn’t write in it every day because I was busy raising him. I think of the woman behind the camera, watching her children, turning them into models and limiting their interaction with them, when she becomes the one recording and interpreting them. I imagine she allows them to be who they are and not who they are supposed to be to see what happens.
Motherhood is all about the open hand and not the gripping fist that clutches dear life. You step away from your child because you love them and perhaps because the urge to hug your child and never let go is so strong.
The reality of Mann’s art—the poses, the poses, “the simple, everyday storytelling”—is a parable of the artist’s mother, a way of reconciling these two things, art and children, who are so dangerously close cancel each other out and leave you, the artist mom, stranded. If you are an artist, you may only think of beauty.
It’s easy to forget that photography is interpretive—unless the image is totally abstract or manipulated—because the images are so easy to recognize and because anyone can take a photograph.
Sally Mann is not an easy artist. She did a series that was filmed at a 6-acre University of Tennessee forensic facility called Body Farm. Corpses (about a hundred donated annually) are scattered about the grounds in various poses and left to decompose for examination of the body in its various post-mortem stages. I can’t even look at these photos because I can’t handle the circumstances, the idea or the images.
She also photographs bones, often from her dead dogs, and most recently an ongoing series of her beloved husband Larry, who suffers from muscular dystrophy. The images are captivating and heartbreaking. The apparent accessibility of the children’s photos is deceptive.
When photography first began, it was a novelty, a way of capturing people and the world around us. Then came trick photography, a type of visual sleight of hand, whether for entertainment or to ease the grief of a loved one who was comforted by ghost photography, or memento mori, or the cutting and pasting of a dead loved one into an image.
Photography initially mimicked painting, using dreamy, slightly blurred effects while depicting large themes (biblical stories, allegories) often seen in paintings. It wasn’t long before photographers dropped all that painterly nonsense and treated it as their own art form (photography was still a record, still a distraction, still journalistic, still portraiture).
It’s easy to forget that photography is interpretive—unless the image is totally abstract or manipulated—because the images are so easy to recognize and because anyone can take a photograph. Collecting photographs, like paintings or sculptures, is relatively new. The photographing seems to be on par, although the end result is to blame for the gear, like saying a typewriter is as important as the writer.
It is difficult for some people to understand the eye involved, the inspiration, the quick decisions, the imagined final image, the dark (or light) room skills and the idea of multiple prints, which is a kind of skepticism about the artistry cause. A photo is valued and devalued at the same time. People can take photos with their phones and then edit them with Photoshop. Sometimes people think a beautiful picture is a beautiful picture because someone happened to take a beautiful picture.
Our relationship to painting is different; Many people go to a museum with the expectation that an image might be obscure and confusing. Or they get bored. by Chirico? Where are all? by Kooning? What about the teeth? What does that mean? Basquiat? Is that graffiti? What does that mean? Do you see that Mondrian over there? My kid could do that. Dorothea Gerben? Why is there a monster at her feet? What does that mean? What does that mean?
But when you see a photograph, the expectation is the complete opposite of a painting; they desperately expect to understand it, to find a quick correlation in their world. So to be presented with a photograph that is not abstract, that is not overworked, that looks like children playing on a summer’s day, taken by their mother, and yet is made uncomfortable by the images, seems like it is somehow “breaking the photography contract” by looking but not feeling like a picture that anyone could (or would) take.
If Mann’s work was painted, a lot of people would say I just don’t like it, it’s weird, but I don’t really get into painting anyway. For example, imagine the youth of Balthus Therese dreams (1936) shows a thirteen-year-old girl gazing daydreamingly out of a window while sitting with one leg bent, consciously displaying her white cotton underwear. in the The guitar lesson (1938), a woman sits with a young girl, naked from the waist down, stretched out on her lap. The girl pinches the woman’s nipple while the woman caresses the girl’s crotch; Robert Hughes called it “one of the few masterpieces of erotic paintings by Western artists in the last fifty years”.
Balthus’ pictures are annoying, but they are paintings. Possibly products of his imagination, not models, not in the room with him while he took the pictures. Paintings invite ambiguity, confusion, rejection. Also, people who enjoy looking at paintings tend to have – how can I say that without sounding like it sounds? – to have a broader idea of art. You could let the little things go. But photography is held to a stricter standard for the reasons stated, and that may be because the audience is so much broader, maybe the thinking is too literal.
So instead of seeing Mann’s children as interpretive works of art, and all that that implies, the literalist, not the person who comes into a museum or caboose with limited judgment, wants to know how a mother can make such graphic images and still could call a mother?
There is so much at work in Mann’s child portraits: the echoes of her own unusual, expressive childhood, the mother watching her child, the artist making pictures in her home (the ‘Huge Discrepancies’), the mother’s attempt to find a way to be a mother and a photographer, of children’s willingness to model (to become art themselves), to be amazed, to the joy of simply letting life unfold and to having the mastery of capturing the ephemeral. To understand that when we love we must love everything, the flaws and the perfection, the blood and the urine, the rhinestones and the roller skates; the disturbing and the pure.
excerpt from Art for the Ladylike: An Autobiography Through Other Lives by Whitney Otto, published by Ohio State University Press.