This cover story appeared in the magazine on Sept. While her mother and father conversed with friends and admirers, Jessie orbited the four rooms in her red dress, fielding questions from strangers eager to know more about her parents. Beneath a portrait of himself in the water, Emmett shrugged off the stares and expressed a typical teen-age frame of mind.
All three seemed unconcerned by the fact that on the surrounding white walls they could be examined, up close, totally nude. The Mann children have endured scrutiny for some time now. Eight years ago, their mother began to chronicle their growing up — the wet beds, insect bites, nap times, their aspirations toward adulthood and their innocent savagery. And the work that resulted has changed the lives of all involved. Sally Mann was an accomplished photographer before the series, but in these intimate black-and-white portraits, exhibited piecemeal over the last several years, she struck a vein.
The fears and sheltering tenderness that any parent has felt for his or her child were realized with an eidetic clarity. A half-naked androgyne, smeared with dirt and grass stains, looks up from a leaf-strewn yard.
Lithe, pale shapes move with prideful ease among thick-torsoed elders. The images seemed to speak of a familiar past that was now distant and irretrievable. The vein has bled silver. Since the beginning of the year, Houk Friedman has taken orders for more than prints, well over a half-million dollars worth of photographs, and the waiting period for delivery of new prints is at least a year. Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world.
Not all the scrutiny has been welcome or favorable. The nudity of the children has caused problems for many publications, including this one. When The Wall Street Journal ran a photograph of thenyear-old Virginia, it censored her eyes, breasts and genitals with black bars. Artforum, traditionally the most radical magazine in the New York art world, refused to publish a picture of a nude Jessie swinging on a hay hook.
Mann has so far been spared the litigation that surrounded the Robert Mapplethorpe shows. And unlike Jock Sturges, whose equipment and photographs of nude prepubescent girls were confiscated by the F. But a Federal prosecutor in Roanoke, Va. The shield of motherhood can quickly become a sword when turned against her. Can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits, even if — especially if — the artist is their parent? And apart from legal and epistomologic matters, is the work any good?
Do these sensual images emerge from the behavior of her subjects or are they shaped by the taste and fantasies of the photographer for an affluent audience? Is it pandering or bravery, her willingness to photograph what other adults have seen but turned away from? Walking through the rooms of the gallery, you could not help but wonder what Emmett, Jessie and Virginia will think about these photographs and about their mother, if not this fall, then in 5, 10 or 15 years.
You can be sure that Sally Mann wonders, too. The doorbell at the Mann home in Lexington, Va. Visitors announce themselves by pressing a red nipple within the raised areola. Children and house both project the sensibilities of Sally Mann herself. A year-old dark-haired beauty whose turned-up nose accentuates a natural hauteur, she is a cool mom. With her brood safely strapped in, she drives a black BMW i, very fast, and favors a subdued, asexual preppy look — turtle-necks and T-shirts, cut-off shorts, dirty Reeboks.
Born and raised here, married to the same man for 22 years, Mann is secure enough in her surroundings to take liberties with the mores of a place only 50 miles from the headquarters of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. Emmett is away at camp. This community allows itself to be scandalized by me and by my work, but they love it. I take being iconoclastic sort of seriously. While she has pursued her photography career with singleminded purpose, he has been a blacksmith and a two-term City Councilman; recently, he got a law degree.
His office in town is 10 minutes away, and he walks home nearly every day for lunch. Their house has an airy mood of understated comfort, its three levels overlooking a wisteria arbor and a well-tended vegetable garden in a yard that slopes down to a creek.
Rope swings and hammocks hang from ash-leaved maples. The decor includes photographs by Diane Arbus and Emmet Gowin, both important figures for Mann; walls of books; marble torsos of nude women; finches in cages and flying free; the skeletons of lizards and cats. An expansion completed this year provides each child his or her own room; Sally and Larry reside in a connecting wing, which also houses her new darkroom and offices.
To meet the demand for her work, she can now afford to hire an assistant. Mann photographs only in the summer; the rest of the year is devoted to marathon sessions of printing. They are impish, argumentative participants, not robots. Like all the children, she will note places where her mother might photograph her. I unilaterally decided. Emmett and Jessie were sent to a psychologist to make certain they understood the issues. Virginia was thought to be too young for such an encounter. In the course of the interview, we probed beyond that.
There was some ambivalence. They certainly recognized the consequences that were negative as well as positive. Emmett, teased by his peers when his topless picture ran in The Washington Post, defused their jibes by telling them that his mother pays him huge sums of money to model for her.
In fact, she pays them 25 cents a negative. How about some braids? You look gorgeous in braids. A renowned gardener, with shrubs and trees from around the world, he was also an atheist and an amateur artist whose keen sense of the perverse delighted his two sons and daughter. For a long time he kept a white, snakelike figure on the dining-room table; only slowly did anyone realize it was petrified dog excrement.
Like her mother, whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, Mann has an ingrained sense of propriety. The dining-room table is set with cloth napkins inside sterling-silver rings. The children have grown up with high expectations from their parents, who strictly control their television intake. Mann took up photography at the Putney School in Vermont; her motive, she has said in many interviews, was to be alone in the darkroom with her then-boyfriend.
She next spent two years at Bennington, where she met Larry, to whom she proposed. Before the birth of her children, she trained her large-format view camera to bring out the mythic resonances in landscapes. Her prints, which often contrast the paleness of flesh or stone with darker surroundings, hint at shadowy forces that can be sensed but not always seen.
Like an essayist collecting quotations, Mann ransacks the history of photography for her imagery. The influence of Norman Sieff, her photography teacher at Bennington and best known for his sepia-tinted album cover for the Band, can still be felt. Beginning in , she had three children in five years, and time for setting up a camera in the wilderness or on construction sites grew scarce.
Her solution to the demands of motherhood, which have eaten away at the schedules of artistic women throughout the ages, was ingenious: with her children as subjects, making art became a kind of child care. From its inception, the family series has played around with these two antagonistic elements: factual documentary and contrived fiction. The pictures dramatize burgeoning sexuality, while implying the more forbidden topics of incest and child abuse. Some of the poses seem casual; others, carefully directed.
Upon discovering that she has stage-managed a scene, some people feel cheated, as if their emotions have been trifled with. Everyone surely has all those fears that I have for my children. The imagery of death fascinates her. It looked like one of those Victorian post-mortem photographs. Though he escaped critical injury, Mann saw the real thing as a warning not to pretend again. The class status of her children, who are not poor but appear to be in the photographs, can also seem problematic.
Suicide, child abuse and poverty are not fictions. What may be cowboy playtime for her children — pretending to be garroted — is taken away from them when transported to the realm of adult melodrama. Rather than preserving their innocence, the photographs seem to accelerate their maturity by relying on the knowingness of the viewer. In the minds of some, her eagerness to handle contaminated material has altered the quality of the work. She has asked bookstores in the area not to sell it and libraries to confine it to rare-book rooms.
Both Manns claim to find no threat to the children from the book. I have to slap my hands sometimes not to take certain pictures. But the more I look at the life of the children, the more enigmatic and fraught with danger and loss their lives become. At some point, you just weigh the risks. At her best, Mann releases long-repressed feelings on the part of the viewer. I distrust any memories I do have. They may be fictions, too. Mann photographs almost every day. These sessions often take over an hour as she coaxes her subjects to remain still and change poses on command.
Frequently she works from a sketch and tries many variations, in the style of a portrait painter. Her work embodies several antithetical trends in contemporary photography. By locating her material in the lives of her own family, Mann belongs among the confessional documentarians, like Tina Barney and Larry Sultan.
But the construction of her photographs as fiction rather than fact, with a moody narrative linking the images, puts her in a camp with Cindy Sherman and the post-modernists.