Sally Mann, and peeking behind the curtain

In high school, I took a photography class for a semester. My photo teacher was a traditionalist, believing that –digital cameras began– there is intrinsic value in learning how to manipulate light the old-fashioned way, with film cameras and a darkroom. In her classroom, there were many photography books and magazines. As my photography class was after lunch, I would often go early to class to browse through the books. One of the books that I looked at repeatedly, and made the deepest impression, was Sally Mann’s Immediate Family.

The photo above, “Emmett, Jesse, and Virginia,” is perhaps her most famous photo (not coincidentally, it is on the cover of Immediate Family). Not all of Mann’s photos are of her family, especially now that her children are grown, but her portraits of her children have always had a peculiar effect on me.

There is always an edge in these portraits, a sense of dread, of danger, of the presence of death. Mann plays with the rough edges of childhood, showing her children interacting with dead animals, or taking advantage of the way that dirt looks like blood in a black and white photograph. One photograph in Immediate Family shows her young daughter, eyes closed, looking up in front of a tree branch that looks like a noose. Childhood is a time of exploration, but Mann reminds us that with exploration comes the risk of danger.

Immediate Family may describe Mann’s subject’s relationship to the photographer, but the word “immediate” also conveys some of the intensity that is directed at the viewer of the photograph from its subject. The children stare right at you. There is a distance in their eyes, and the suggestion that it is you that is under observation. They look like they’re a thousand years old. Sometimes, when looking through Immediate Family in the photo room, I’d have to turn away from a photo with an intense glare. I would feel like I was in danger.

Today, I picked out at random the first DVD in the PBS series art:21 (Art in the 21st Century). Sally Mann was one of the featured artists. I had a really weird reaction: I was deeply uncomfortable watching the segment. Mann has never hid the fact that her pictures are posed, and it would be impossible to take quality medium-format pictures the same way that you take a snapshot. And yet the immediacy, the intimacy of her photos made me feel like I already knew her and her family, and to see her on DVD talking about the way she makes art was destroying the conception of the Mann family I had in my head.

I’ve never been like this. I’ve always been a special-features hound. It’s never diminished my appreciation of a movie to know how it’s made. But this bothered me. Mann’s photographs have never felt like photos to me. They’ve seemed like transmissions from another world, and to know that they were made in this one felt disorienting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *