PRINT Summer 1992

Truths Told Slant: Sally Mann

It’s early morning in what is sure to be another sultry Virginia day. Sally Mann’s living room is carpeted with photographs, in an array of pairings and sequences that will eventually constitute her forthcoming book, Immediate Family, and I must step carefully so as not to disturb last night’s editing. Looking, once again, this morning, I am still astonished—even after a year of working with Mann—by the stunning vitality and the darker moodiness of these pictures, their compelling storytelling and their far more elusive interior quality. They are, as Mann writes in her introduction, loosely about what it is to grow up, but their truths, she also notes (quoting Emily Dickinson), are truths told slant.

Then there is the unfathomable presence of the young subjects of the photographs—Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia Mann—who reveal and question these truths, and who engage us in remarkable tales through their mother’s artistry. As in her last book, At Twelve, a group of large-format portraits of 12-year-old girls, children rarely appear vulnerable in front of Mann’s camera.

Everyone’s still asleep so I decide to walk into downtown Lexington. Approaching the main drag, I’m confronted by armies of men in full Civil War regalia. This comes after last night’s annual open-air performance of Stonewall Country, a locally written and produced musical featuring a rollicking number whose chorus asks, “Did Stonewall Jackson freak out?” Questioning the sudden time warp, I am informed that Civil War reenactments occur with a certain regularity here, and are taken quite seriously. I wonder who wins in these versions, but think it better not to ask; I suddenly feel very Northern.

When I get back to the house, Jessie wants to show me her bulletin-board collection of photos of Madonna, once a heroine of hers. But as we look, Madonna gets merciless scrutiny from Jessie, who, having heard a self-righteous televangelist accuse Mann of all sorts of camera-based cruelties, is trying to sort out how her mother’s work differs from these photographs she has collected. Jessie is a ten-year-old grappling with issues of objectification, feminism, commercialism, art, and popular culture. Her sister, Virginia, now seven, is still confused as to why the editors of the Wall Street Journal first severely cropped, then pasted carefully positioned black bars over a photograph they reproduced of her at age four: “Why did they cross me out?” she wonders. Mann’s photographs of her family are not uncomplicated for them.

In her introduction to At Twelve, Ann Beattie asked whether the world of the children in that book could really be “an innocent world in which a pose is only a pose.” There is always the issue, after all, of what viewers will bring to the pictures, be it the morality of some televangelist, the journalistic ethics of a newspaper, the experiences of their own childhoods or with their own children, the expertise of a connoisseur or an art historian, or the peer perspective of a child. Larry and Sally Mann’s children must deal not only with their own feelings about their bodies, events in their lives, relationships with their parents and each other, but also with the perceptions, preconceptions, judgments, and perhaps hostility of the world beyond their immediate family.

Carole S. Vance writes, “The realistic quality of photographic representation makes it especially vulnerable to the conservative analysis of representation, which is characterized by extreme literalism.”1 Because most of the photographs are composed at the cabin where the children swim and romp with feral grace, often nude; because their bloody noses, scratches, swollen insect-bites, and wet beds may one day metamorphose into images before Mann’s lens; because their own imaginations carry them to a place inaccessible to adults (with the possible exception of their mother, whose pictures realize the intrinsic, mysterious choreography in her children’s play); and because Mann’s work is as orchestrated as it is found, as metaphoric as it is documentary, as enigmatically poignant as it is piercingly unsentimental, the photographs are a disquieting conundrum to any viewer searching for an easy read, a literal translation from reality. And yet, with all their complexities, these images are elemental for the children. They are an ongoing story, an ongoing collaboration with their mother. Control is negotiated, roles are fungible, the process organic, playful, tender, clever, nourishing.

The photographs have an acute sense of American place. A river, its current here encouraging your swim, there carving paths for the adventurous white-water drifter, flows under a sheer rough-surfaced cliff. On the other side is the cabin, which has been in Mann’s family for many years. The only neighbors visible graze in the fields. This is the site for most of Immediate Family, the place, as Mann writes, where the children “dress up, they pout and posture, they paint their bodies, they dive like otters in the dark river.”

Melissa Harris is senior editor of Aperture and a writer who lives in New York.

1. Carole S. Vance, “Photography, Pornography, and Sexual Politics,” Aperture no. 121 (“The Body in Question”), Fall 1990, p. 52.

Sally Mann’s Immediate Family will be published by Aperture, New York, in September 1992. A traveling exhibition of this work will open at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia on October 5, in conjunction with the publication. Mann’s last book, At Twelve, was also published by Aperture, in 1988.