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 is 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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tex andrews: "The backlash to Mann's work reminds me of other unusual events in the art world (and beyond). I remember while in grad school, in one of my seminars with an amazing professor, Jack Burnham, we discussed the then-outlandish price that had just been gotten for a Van Gogh at auction. We know now that there were financial shenanigans involved (Really?! How shocking!), but at the time we discussed that the reason it was a Van Gogh that brought this price was that he represented something to society at large. As the poster child for 'crazy artist,' he was like a safety valve for a society that cannot afford to be free and unfettered, and must be buttoned down to function smoothly. Yet of course that grates because it is unnatural to the human individual.
"Thus something unusual about a situation may be an indicator of something else lying underneath the surface. Like America's continuing struggle with race actually masking the more difficult, especially for the idealized America, problem of class.
"In Mann's case, I suggest that the reaction to her work indicates America's unsettled and hypocritical stance towards children: a charade of hyper-protectiveness, from ridiculous laws, hysteria over sexual abuse, helicopter parents, &c.—while simultaneously allowing the public schools to rot, condemning millions of children already in poverty to little hope for the future so that the problem perpetuates multi-generationally (and so they can grow up and we can blame them as adults for their situations), ignoring all manner of other abuses to children, not providing day care support, maternity and paternity leave, and the list goes on.
"The 'sexual' nature of the work, or its supposed 'exploitation,' made it easy to target (especially in prudish/prurient America)—so necessary for a society that needs every excuse and way to deflect its attention away from the real problems of children here."
Dogman: "What is so interesting—make that disconcerting—is how the world seems to be stuck on Sally's family photos from two decades ago to the exclusion of her subsequent work. While I generally prefer more documentary style photography, her 'Deep South,' 'Mother Land,' and 'What Remains' projects were truly (to use an overused word) awesome, in my opinion. I'm also fond of those tender, loving portraits of her husband.
"She is a remarkable, constantly evolving artist but, like the mature rock star, she has become overly identified with the early hits. Like many, I first became acquainted with her work through 'Immediate Family' (didn't get the controversy then, still don't) but I truly began to love her photography with the later projects."