Ethic and Photographic: Sally Mann

Written by Giacomo Goldoni

Sally Mann, Vinland, 1992

How much is the conception of art and its banning a matter of times? Taking into consideration Sally Mann’s Immediate Family (1992) and the uproar it caused, in this short essay I will try to understand how the timespan of where the artist lived influenced her photography, and how this last could be included in the recent history of the medium. Furthermore, I will be analysing the social commentary risen around her project, trying to give a proper explanation of why the work raised such divergent responses, relating to the one’s cultural background and time.


Naptime (1989) represents one of Sally Mann’s daughters, Virginia, half-awake in a slightly alluring pose, aware of being photographed. It was one of the most debated photos of the series, as some considered it too sexually provocative. The gelatine silver print, depicting the child seen from the top, was obtained through the old wet-plate Collodion process. This was one of the first photographic processes, developed by Fred Archer in 1851, using glass instead of paper as a light-sensitive material. The technique solved two problems, the first of which was the poor quality of the calotype and the second being the inability of serving as a negative of the daguerreotype process (Frizot, 1998).


Sally Mann, Naptime, 1989

The reason why such an old method was revived by Mann is due to the time she lived in. According to Marien (2014, p. 462), during the late twentieth century the society’s focusing on ‘domestic life intensified’ and photographers, recovering their old family albums, took interest in reviving the past photographic processes. They also contributed in changing the way people saw family portraits. Meanwhile, before pictures of events and celebrations were predominant, artists such as David Moore and Jo Spence were the first ones to photograph their families on a daily basis; Moore by representing the real world of the unprivileged during the eighties (Stewart, 2014) and Spence by investigating gender and class roles and also the transformation of the family album in modern society.


The political point of view switched to emotional in Mann’s series. The family portrait she took allowed a lot people to see into her private life. This angered a large amount of her audience due to her children’s exposure to strangers’ gazes. Sally Mann was not the first photographer to portray children in total nudity (for instance, Rejlander and Carroll children’s series date back to the 1860s), and she was also not the first one to convey a strong relationship between mother and child, as this bond has been widely depicted in both Dorr’s Mother and Child and Cunningham’s family portraits. Due to her popularity, she was the first one to break the taboo for this branch of photography, as this was a period where ‘no subject was as publicly dangerous as the subjects of child’s body’, on the report of Higonnet (1998, p. 133).


Nell Dorr, Mother and Child, 1940

Imogen Cunningham, Miss Cann and Gryffyd (1916)

Taboo was also the name of an exhibition which took place in Seattle in 1989, at the Greg Kucera Gallery, where Mann’s early photographs from the family project were displayed side-by-side to the ones from artists such as Mapplethorpe, Sherman and Serrano. This was a generation of photographers which aimed at casting down the moral and social stereotypes previously forced by the tradition, especially the ones related to sexuality.


One thing they all had in common was that their work was often censored or banned from exhibitions. In 1989 Mapplethorpe's nudes were the reason why the Corcoran Gallery’s director cancelled The perfect moment exhibition, which ironically caused the clamor she initially wanted to avoid (Danto, 1992). Subsequently, in 1996, one of his pictures entitled Rosie, representing a four-year-old girl in a dress without underpants, was censored by the police from appearing at the Hayward Gallery because ‘they feared it would appeal to perverts’ (1996). Mann’s pictures were also censored by the Wall Street Journal, which covered her four-year-old child’s eyes, nipples and vagina with black bars (2010). According to De Grazia, self-censorship should never enter an artist’s or a curator’s mind (1992) as this constricts the freedom of expression and also because this doesn't protect children from abuses.


Robert Mapplethorpe, Rosie, 1976

While Mann’s vision of her own series is the neat and simple one of a mother who tells the story ‘of what it is to grow up’ and everything that goes with it (Mann, 2004), Immediate Family’s publication was heavily criticised. Mann’s critics pursued distinct thesis: some expressed their concerns about the presumed sexualization of her children (Starks, 1992) and that this could arise sexual desire in the adult viewer (Gordon, 1996); many wondered if Mann exploited her families intimate moments in order to create breathtaking images for her own economic profit.

On the other hand, her advocates, Higonnet in particular, manifested the viewer to be the one assuming the worst (Higonnet, 1998), supporting the thesis that it was what people already had in their minds that made the difference, because a ‘children looking at her photographs would not have found them disturbing in the way some adults did’ (Rynd, 1992). Furthermore, Mann published the photographs ten years after taking them, allowing her children to grow up and to fully understand the impact the photographs would have had on society.


In 1995, referring to a Calvin Klein’s ad (Higonnet, 1998), Higonnet claimed ‘the sexual ambiguity tolerated in the 1980s seemed dangerously blatant in the 1990s’. Hence it is possible to assume that Sally Mann’s photographs would not have had the same impact on society and would not have received that same criticism if published two or three decades before. For instance, in the 1860s Rejlander portrayed very young girls in sexual poses under the demand of a ‘clandestine’ part of the Victorian society (1987, p. 47). The arisen critics focused mainly on the nudity itself, as in that period it was fully accepted to marry a girl of that age. By contrast, no one denounced the corruption of the young girls, whereas nowadays it would have been the crucial issue.



To conclude, art institutions and artists always paid the price for their freedom of expression, whilst trying to slowly move forward the social boundaries and stereotypes. Sally Mann’s work was only a contribution to the inner workings of this everlasting process and it was fundamental in the specific years it was published. This is because the conception of art is strictly a matter of its time, just like its censorship. However, when it comes to art, its restriction always fails to maintain the freedom of expression it should protect.


Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985



Written by Giacomo Goldoni


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