Most of the photography world (the part that matters, anyway) is talking about Sally Mann's article in the New York Times, published yesterday. In it, Sally writes at length, and movingly, about the fallout from her 1992 book Immediate Family.
Although we're not in touch any more, I was acquainted with Sally during the time she was working on the pictures for that book—I was a guest at Sally and Larry's country place on the Maury River several times, and I met their kids when they were kids. I tried to convince her to have the book published by Jack Woody of Twin Palms...the photographs are as flowing and deep as river waters, and Jack Woody, who I didn't know, was publishing some physically very beautiful books at the time. I thought he would be up to the task of reproducing Sally's photographs in a way that did them justice. Sally decided to go with Aperture because the book would be cheaper, and she wanted the work to be available to as wide an audience as possible.
The relatively poor production quality of the book is the only thing that mars it. It is a landmark of late twentieth-century American photography. I think of it as a work of Southern fiction—it is to photography what William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor are to literature.
So yesterday's Times article made me feel profoundly sad. Sally as a young mother just brimmed with life-force—she was fearless, dedicated, and artistically assured; she crackled with intelligence and integrity. It never occurred to me to doubt her character as a mother, or to question her motives, even momentarily. She loved her kids as much as any woman.
I do remember the sinister advent of the stalker. Sally used to write letters in pencil on the back of 8x10 contact proof-prints of her famous pictures; I have from her one letter—on the back of the photograph of Virginia from the Aperture cover, as it happens—in which she mentions the threat he posed, and she asked me to be on the lookout for the name he used. I was able to tell her that the name was a common alias used in the theatrical world.
It's obvious from her article published yesterday that she and her family paid a profound price for the large and lasting success of Immediate Family. I can hear in her words the amount of thought she's had to give to her own defense, the number of times she's had to defend herself, the emotional toll it has extracted over the years. And I can sense, and sympathize with, the extent to which it's worn her down. That's just a shame. Immediate Family a work that belongs culturally to the 1960s or '70s, but it came out at a time when the reactionary backlash to the counterculture was in full howl. It should merely be celebrated as the great and rare work of art it is. Instead, it "exposed" her—her word, from the article title—to the uglier elements in American society, both prurient and prudish.
It's just very sad that that had to be so, although it doesn't diminish the greatness of her accomplishment.
P.S. Not that I still wouldn't like to see a revised, deluxe edition of the book one day, though—and Jack Woody is still in business. Just sayin'.
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