New York

Sally Mann

Naked Jessie dazzles as a rapt Shiva crouched in a brook; the coiled braids on the back of her head in Vinland, 1992, are as freighted with significance as a moody blur of trees in the distance. In At Warm Springs, 1991, Virginia immerses herself in water and pretends to be a severed head, her fine hair snaking out around a tiny face that barely clears the surface and seems to float in a medallion of light. She resembles a gorgon, but her eyes are closed—her gaze is directed inward, rendering her an interior presence, a benign, canny spirit, rather than a harbinger of destruction. This symbolic blindness, which here signals the elusiveness of childhood experience, also figures in a number of other works: in One Big Snake, 1991, Emmett stretches a long snakeskin in front of his eyes; Eyeless in Col Alto, 1993, depicts Virginia with wildflowers in her hair and a beam of bright light obscuring her right eye; and in Black Eye, 1991, she sits in a wingback chair in a party dress, two eyes shut, one ringed by a bruise. In yet other photos, the children ignore the camera, challenge its authority, or revel in its presence.

Comparing Mann’s work unfavorably with the eerie photographs by Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) which depict young girls—clothed and unclothed—Adam Gopnik, in a recent review of a biography of Alice in Wonderland’s author, claimed that in work such as Mann’s “we are no longer able to do credit . . . to the real libidinal energy of children, as opposed to their mimicry of the grown-up kind. Looking even at a fully clothed photograph of Dodgson’s, like that of the recumbent, smoldering Irene MacDonald one feels that the picture is as much hers as his. She reminds us that sexiness . . . resides in people, even in small ones, while ‘sexuality’ resides in categories.” These remarks fail to recognize that Dodsgon’s subjects mirror his emotions far more effectively than their own.

There is a chapter in Through the Looking Glass where Alice glides down a dream river in a dream boat and tries to gather the scented rushes that line the banks of the river, but they melt away nearly as fast as she can pick them. The narrative slows almost imperceptibly as the author describes her damp, tangled hair and intense longing for the rushes, and one becomes conscious of a vague sense that Alice’s dreams, not being really her own, narrowly escape violation by the narrator’s frustrated desires.

The dreams of Sally Mann’s children are very much their own, and although “real libidinal energy” is succinctly expressed in the joyous limbs of all three, anyone expecting “smoldering” young girls will be disappointed. Although her photographs celebrate her daughters’ precocious beauty, they refuse to translate it into representations of the viewer’s desire, which is perhaps one of the things that make people uneasy about her work. One can witness one of her children in the stages of a continual process of discovery—whether preparing to dive into a river, squeezing milk from her braids, or imitating Manet’s Olympia on a living room chaise longue—and still not know her, not really. What does remain constant in Mann’s pictures is an unsettling affinity for the natural world-shadowy and wild, but in the end no more frightening than the cord of dark liquid that creeps down Virginia’s torso toward her open legs in Fun Picture #3, 1992.

Kristin M. Jones