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Friday, 17 April 2015


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I sympathize with Sally Mann. I am also not surprised at how her work was received in some quarters. Unfortunately, here in America the words freedom and liberty are used so much and so often that it's easy to overlook our culture's darker, more reactionary and repressive impulses. To paraphrase the words of rapper Ice-T, "you've got freedom of speech, just watch what you say."

Long time reader, first time caller, etc.

Thank you so much for sharing, Sally Mann is my absolute favorite photographer and artist. The article is fascinating and heartbreaking.

As an aside, I found it fascinating that the article online uses a Harry Potter-esque moving image (not quite a video, although there must be a better phrase). I hit replay nearly a dozen times and really connected with it.

That book was an enormous influence on my photography. I now feel even more in her artistic debt for all the suffering she has had to endure because of it.

There was no doubt to me that Sally Mann's work was of very high quality and has inspired me on a photographic level, however, even though I am a very open minded person, it mad me question just how far you can take art and I am still not quite comfortable with the subject matter. Her work really divides me, and makes me ask questions and I am sure could and has been debated for many hours, which, I suppose, is what art should do.

Thanks, Mike, for your additional note. It caused me to go back to the Times article and read the public comments, many of which left me appalled. I expected more of Times readers. Mann is an exceptional artist; unfortunate are the benighted souls so wrapped up in their own fears, projections and fantasies who can't see that.

"...it came out at a time when the reactionary backlash to the counterculture was in full howl."

And now that reactionary backlash is officially codified, televised and embraced as the norm.

When this book came out it struck me as the most human of any photography I had ever seen. It still does. I never realized how big a controversy it became.

I am appalled at the responses that this artist received over her art. It reminds me of the case of the Minnesota State football coach and his 'pornographic' collection of his own childrens images. When will our society grow up?

Thanks for pointing out that NYT piece.

I met one of Sally Mann's daughters some years ago when she gave a talk to a small group. She seemed to be driving forward in an art career of her own, a secure adult proud of her mother's work as she should be.

But I cannot escape the impression and opinion that Sally is a stunningly naive person imaginative in the moment but utterly unimaginative beyond that moment.

I'm saddened at the difficult time this poor family suffered through and wish her and her family peace and happiness. I also hope that the stalker pays for his crimes and that other children are same from him. I understand from the article that the stalker is overseas. If Ms. Mann knows where then perhaps the overseas authorities may be able to do something whereas the USA authorities have obviously not.

Mike: Sally Mann's work raises many issues, great and small. And I hesitated before writing this because she is a friend of yours -- and you are closer to all the events she reports on than I ever hope to be.

I remember when I first saw those pictures how moved I was by the sheer emotional "presence" of the images. She managed to take the most unwieldy of photographic instruments -- the view camera -- and make it disappear in the portraits that she took. I think about Nicholas Nixon's work from around the same period (or Avedon's which she mentions in the article). They are no less moving, but the static nature of the recording device was emphasized. In contrast in many of her pictures she captured life's dance and the camera melts away. She claims that these images were all posed and that her children were "actors." Fooled me and fooled me good, and I say that in an admiring way.

My sense of the complexity of Sally Mann's work emerged after the birth of my daughter, and then that of my son five years later. I think that the children of an artist always have an uneasy relationship between that part of their parent that is called -- driven -- to produce artifacts and that part which ought to be devoted to them. I know, I know . . .it is more complicated than that. But I am glad I was not Picasso's child, or Matisse's, or Faulkner's, or Plath's or Arbus' for that matter. In Sally Mann's case the problem is folded in on itself because she made her children into her art. Now I believe -- as both the child of my parents and the father of my own children -- that a child has an unequivocal claim on his or her parent's protection, love, and attention. That part of Richard B. Woodward's critique rings true, in part, although I think his raising the issue of pedophilia is a bit ripe -- kind of like yelling "Nazi" in a political debate: inflammatory, but usually unhelpful. The complicated bit, when I look at Ms. Mann's work, it seems to me that her fearlessness was misplaced,precisely because her children had the first best claim on her protection and it seems that art won out. In the process, the children became public figures before they could have a sense of what that really means. Mann addresses this in her piece -- and if there really was no harm, then "no foul" I say.


It really isn't the statement of the artist that I need to come full circle on this, however. It is the statement of her children. Because it is no defense at all to say to a child, "I did not realize how dangerous the world was when I made my art."

Thanks for opening a discussion on this.

P.S. Sally Mann is hardly the first or only photographer -- or artist for that matter -- to threaten the boundaries that separate art from good taste. Sebastiao Salgado's pictures of a starving children in Ethiopia could be argued to "aetheticize tragedy." How could something so horrible also be beautiful? Well, because important things are rarely simple, that's how.

I read that article yesterday and was very moved. I have often felt, as she does, that adults sexualize children's bodies. That while for a child being nude is the most natural thing in the world, our society has turned it into something taboo. It pains me to see the emotional toll on both her, and her children. The part about her daughter wearing clothes into the bathtub nearly brought me to tears :_(

I allow my child to run around nude (in the privacy of our home and property), and I have photographed her that way. I want her to feel comfortable with her body. However I would never share those photos outside of the immediate family simply to protect her from all the sickness that exists in the world. A child cannot comprehend what it means to share nude photos of themselves with the public.

Sally's art is remarkable, and I wish that society could accept it for what it is. It cannot.

Thank you for your perspective on this. I also felt sad reading the piece in the Times for what she went through -- though it's not surprising -- and the negative accusatory comments of people who would not have done what she did (as if that is a reliable measure of right and wrong). I suppose her critics feel vindicated by the revelation of the stalker's existence, but I just felt badly for her and her family. There were risks involved in what she did, and in regard to her children and their feelings and opinions it seems she managed those risks very well. In regard to the risks emanating from the outside world, those are harder to manage. But to say she should have minimized those risks by not doing what she did strikes me as advocating cowardice. She strikes me as courageous and to suggest she should have acted cowardly is just another example of people judging others by what they would have done.

I read the article yesterday with a mix of anger, sadness, and frustration. It really resonates with a book I'm currently reading, "Art & Fear". Her story is one of the most powerful current examples of the influences that can hold back any artist from creating their best work.

MIke, thanks once again for linking us up to substantial pieces of work in the photography sphere. Very much appreciated.

I can't comment on Sally's article except to say it exposes so well issues of great importance in our American culture. Its so disappointing to see so much American popular criticism spent on matters related to something so natural as the human body (how it looks and what we choose to do with it) and so little on real problems that need serious attention (e.g.: lack of care for our fellow humans, at home and around the planet). I applaud her for writing the article.

I would like to remark on a related, but much less important, matter. Sally Mann has often written about the wellspring of her drive to create photographs. I so very much appreciate it when artists take the time to talk about what is going on inside them when they make their work. We often hear artists use the catchphrase 'the art stands on its own and I shouldn't have to explain it'. To a degree I buy this credo, but I do find it refreshing and inspirational when someone like Sally takes the time to try.

Sometimes when I am photographing in the street, strangers yell at me and call me names. I never really get used to it but I keep going. The best way to fight back against small-minded politically correct intolerance, is to do it again. Republish the book.

I too was sad when I read about the stalker. I normally consider myself to be ethically-sound, but I admit that my immediate thought when I read about the years-long torment this madman caused her family was that perhaps extrajudicial disposition might be an appropriate tact for dealing with kind of threat.

The first of Sally Mann’s pictures I saw was the one of Emmet bathing in the creek. I saw it some three or four years ago here on TOP. Then I became acquainted with some of her other pictures. I was surprised they didn’t generate controversy, but it turned out I was wrong: they actually did. They had to. People who have nothing but misconceptions about paedophilia and child pornography always react this way. Sally Mann wasn’t the first victim of puritan’s wrath (I remember Will McBride’s pictures of nude teen boys being the subject of some bitter controversy over the net) and won’t certainly be the last.
In a way there’s a justification for it: abusing children is a hideous crime and people have all the right to be revolted when they hear of such misconducts. Yet it looks to me some take their fears too far and mix art with pornography, and nudity with sexuality. Not every picture of a nude child is child pornography. In the case of Sally Mann it is so obviously not so that I wonder how people fail to realize it. Sally Mann’s pictures are wonderful displays of love and sensitivity; they deserve all the praise they get.
It gets worse, though. Nowadays it seems you can’t photograph a child even if he (she) is covered in winter clothes from head to toes. In some people’s judgement, it’s just not appropriate. A person photographing children (unless he/she is a parent) may be seen as a potential abuser. It’s horrible when people live in such fear. Of course, most of the times malice lies in other people’s minds, not in the photographer’s; that is not to say there aren’t monsters out there and one shouldn’t be aware, but not everyone who photographs children is necessarily a child molester.
These are sad times indeed. I hate the ongoing dictatorship of “politically correct” almost as much as the fact that there are perverts out there. Puritans and child molesters are both the same: they’re symbols of the moral degeneration that afflicts most of our world. The former stand for the rotten morals of our civilization, the others are their by-product.
Besides, why are people so hasty in associating nudity to sex? Why is there so much prejudice about nudity? The nude human body can be a thing of beauty; nudity shouldn’t be seen as something sinful or perverse, because it isn’t. Please bring us back our innocence!

And who would dare to publish such a book today?

I love Sally Mann's pictures of her children. I photograph my children too, though not naked and not art, but quite successfully as stock. You may be surprised (or perhaps not) at the strength of feeling such action can arouse. I have been lectured in online forums about using their images in this way, that I am somehow failing to protect them from 'potential' harm. I point out that without willing photographers like me the result would be a world populated only by images of adults. Sad.

My children have seen their pictures used all over the place: online, on book covers, in a national conservation poster, and even in the local bank when they opened accounts last year. Nor will I ever forget the first time one of my pictures was found in the wild: by my daughter, in a book at her kindy, a wonderful surprise.

In addition, they learn about how to produce commercially attractive imagery, how to self-start and run your own business, and how the web is not only a place for the trivial social media their friends use. They see their bank balances inflate too with a share of the profit, not huge sums, but it will be enough to cover their first year (maybe two) at university.

On the scale of harm parents can do to their children, publishing photographs of them comes far down the list. I have no doubt that many of the enraged complainers are nose-bagging their children with junk food and force feeding them religion, totally unaware of the irony.

Mike, thanks for taking a stand. I too, as a father and grandfather, like her work very much. Being misunderstood is a price great art often has to pay.


Lovely photo (yours). I believe you've posted it here before, because I recall being impressed by the almost mirror-image balance of brightness and shapes in the top right and bottom left corners. (Sally Mann's images are also worthy, of course.)

In the NYT comments section, I was amused by the folks who felt Mann's images were posed rather than capturing real life. I am guessing these commenters have never tried photographing with an 8X10 view camera, a format that almost demands an ongoing collaboration between the photographer and the subject.

Sally Mann is awesome. It's really tough that she had this backlash.

Kind of an early instance of viral phenomenon, pre-Internet, really. If the book hadn't hit the zeitgeist just so, nobody would have cared. She wouldn't have sold nearly as many copies either, to be sure.

I always wonder about the people who go on about how terrible it is, the nude children, oh dear what about pedophiles? What's really going on in that noggin of your, Mr. Prude? Why do you think pedophiles are so common, and so very very active?

"Omnia munda mundis" ["To the pure person, all things are pure"—Ed.]

(Hey, it is from the bible!)

One may or may not like the photographs, that is up to individual taste, but that is where it must stop.

You should try to get her to do a print sale for TOP. Real silver prints, of course, from her Immediate Family series.

When the book "Twelve" came in, my wife looked at the book cover somewhat startled and asked "What is this?" I told her that yes, Sally Mann is somewhat controversial but her photographs are excellent. As mother of two children, she thought that Ms. Mann was definitely "naive" in her interpretation.

In my photography, I often have opportunities to photograph young people "cosplaying," sometimes with less covering than people would normally wear. I have always avoided those photo-ops, to avoid the "creepy guy with camera" reputation that some photographers get.

I wept after reading Sally's article. America is so f*cked up...

I am very happy _Immediate Family_ exists. In my mind, it's one of the most beautiful and heart-felt photo books ever. The tones and compositions alone are stunning. (There's a TV documentary from back then, showing Sally posing her children. I wonder if it's online.)
And David Hamilton should really not be the last word on nudes of minors. He did not have anything like Sally's talent, and his work was not innocent of the aspects which spooks people, whereas Sally's is, fully.

As a former publisher of a site with tasteful nudes, I have felt the daily anxiety of living in a world where the fear regarding minors and sensuality is so intense that reason is far out the window and long gone.
I was once "called in" for an interview in the local newspaper, because they'd gotten a letter from an irate cititzen who found out that I lived in their town, and thought me a blot on their moral tone. (They also have an Anne Summers shop in town centre, selling dildoes and sex videos.) He had written to them, without a shred of evidence: "perhaps his models are not even legal". This last, based on an arbitrary age limit, is always what triggers the greatest fear and the most irrational actions. I was able to mollify the newspaper with the facts of the matter. (I got five times as many submissions as I could use; it would be stupid of me to take any risk using material without adequate proof of age.)

This anxiety was surely the single great downside to what was otherwise a sound and fun business, one that focused on beauty and got many, many thankful letters from people who'd been helped to see nude beauty more innocently.

I have all the Sally’s books and when I had to choose one word to describe her work it would be: Integrity.
The article fills me with anger and sadness, but in the end… who cares. Sally Mann is one of the most important photographers of our time. In her area unmatched by none.

In the early sixties my aunt took a picture of my cousin (f) and me (m) as children playing with bath foam, nude in the tub. It was used as cover for a Dutch magazine and there were only positive reactions.
Nowadays my wife, who works at a kindergarten, is not allowed to take any pictures of the kids she nurses. Not even a little toe.

In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain "hard-core" pornography, or what is obscene, by saying, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . but I know it when I see it".
I venture to say that those with a negative interpretation of these images and the tomato one which I googled, go through their pathetic life seeing ugliness where there is beauty everywhere they look.

Sally Mann's innocent work is of her own children at play. What mother does not want the very best for their children?

This whole sorry tale takes her love and creativity, and tries to twist it into something nasty.

I strongly reject this bitter, petty twisting.

But I cannot escape the impression and opinion that Sally is a stunningly naive person imaginative in the moment but utterly unimaginative beyond that moment.

Kenneth Tanaka

To me, that makes her work even more beautiful.

Anyone who finds Sally Mann's photography 'offensive' should take a long hard look at their own issues.

Because some people sexualise children does not mean children are sexual.

I wonder if Emmet Gowin has ever had strange reactions to his work. I've always seen a connection between him and Mann, though I've always found Mann's child portraits too intimate. Too much, too close, too true, too naked, carried so far, but then I'm a rusty hermit uneasy saying anything as personal as "Good morning" to a stranger.

I see you've touched on on the Mann-Gowin link "I treasure Gowin's early work of his wife and her family, collected in his 1976 Knopf book Photographs (Sally Mann named her son Emmet in honor of Gowin)" (http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/the-10-to-25-books.html)

The power of her work can't be denied, and I think that's the nut: If it said nothing then in turn no one would ever speak of it, good or ill or anything else.

As The Clash put it, "You have the right to free speech, as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it."

May the good one bless you and yours Ms. Mann. You certainly have blessed the rest of us with your work.

Mike, thank you for drawing our attention to Sally Mann's article, as I wouldn't have known about it otherwise.

Yes, there is sadness in the article, and Sally and her family shouldn't have had to endure the attacks and stalking that she describes. Perhaps the isolation and sense of security provided by the farm did not serve her well in that regard.

But the article also reveals a survivor who is fiercely proud of her family and of the collaboration that produced the body of work, and of the beauty of the achievement itself.

A highlight for me was Sally's description of the feelings of delight in the sensuousness of her children that motivated her to engage in this project. And - for I hadn't realised this before - that her photographs were shot on an 8 x 10 view camera. Having myself become a large format photographer in recent years, I understand only now that each image is a deliberate act by both the photographer and the subject. It's not the almost instant and reactive act that shooting with a small camera held to the face often is. With a large format camera, and an 8 x 10 at that, you are intentionally creating art. This simple distinction is unlikely to be understood, in my experience, either by the vast majority of the public or by those who see themselves as keen amateur photographers. The mindset is very different.

Thanks again,
Rod S.

Thanks for the excellent article. It truly is sad that the world we live in makes it all the more difficult for an artist to present their art without so many fears...stalkers, accusations of child abuse and pedophilia, and so many more.

I'm reminded of a similar fate for Alain Laboile, an extremely talented French photographer, who like Sally Mann takes wonderful photographs of his children, often nude.

I believe it got to the point where he had to take them off of Flickr due to the outcry. A travesty in my opinion.

For those not familiar with Mr. Laboile's work there is a nice introduction to it on LensCulture:


Thanks again, Mike and keep up the great work on this site. Take care...

wow. what a force.

thank you.

Since no one else has said this, MIke, that's a truly wonderful portrait of Sally Mann that you caught back in the day. It captures her as a lovely person, and augments it with the sculptural shapes that are packed in around her.


after reading all the comments here and the article ---
it was her choice to do the photos and the book and I see both points of view.
Myself however as a parent of two teenage daughters, it never crossed my mind to take those types of photos of my children when they were younger.
The one thought that continues to go thru my head is "child exploitation" and it is the the childs' own parent doing it. There is a big difference between taking these photos for family/private use vs. commercial use to make money and gain fame

I believe any right-minded person would see the art in Sally Mann's work. It has a wonderful aesthetic quality and also communicates what it is to be human.

But like Kenneth Tanaka's comment, I also believe Sally Mann exhibits a certain "Art before common sense" approach to life. But isn't this an element of what makes an artist an artist?

I recently went to a talk (in Adelaide, Australia) by Magnum photographer Trent Parke. I admire his photographs but crikey, the guy is bonkers. His life is driven by "woo" and spooky "coincidences". As I left the talk, I realized that if Trent Parke was instead a practical, logical type of bloke then he wouldn't be able produce those wonderful photographs. C'est la vie.

Speaking as an outsider, pretty much, I see something quite wonderfully American in SM's work. But also, unfortunately, something very American in a lot of the criticism she has received.

Many years ago when I first saw "Immediate Family", I was in awe of the beauty of the photographs; the setting, the freedom, the strength of family. I was nearly in tears with envy—my upbringing was fragmented with strife and missing elements. I saw in the pages that which I wanted to have experienced. And the location as seen in the photographs. Absolute paradise. It is so sad that such wonder and life and joy was tainted by the lesser elements of humanity who found it necessary to insert their own minimal "morality". The article in the New York Times is heart-wrenching. Sally Mann remains one of my photographic icons. I have no apparent ability to photograph people, so I photograph abstract and nature. I remain in awe of her skill in bringing the beauty of life to film.

Mike, first I want to say that the portrait of Sally Mann was terrific. We need to see more of your work, particularly some of your older film work.
The article was troubling but not unexpected. I have seen the book in the past, but never owned it just got it from the library. I was unaware of the controversy that surrounded the publication of the book until this article. This book was published in a pre-FB( Facebook) era, I am wondering how it would be received in today's post FB era. I still to this day refuse to put any pictures of my beautiful granddaughter on FB for these reasons. Although, I have posted them on Flickr and Zenfolio. Not sure what the difference is between either of these social media is. Maybe there is comfort level with Flickr and Zen that you are dealing with Artist and not the general public as you are with FB. Maybe I am just being foolish and should reconsider my stand with Zen and Flickr. Just my two cents, thanks for pointing out the article, I missed it in my daily reading of the NYT.

When I heard about Sally's Immediate Family for the first time some time ago (I've learnt of her from you Mike. It might have been Sunday Morning Photographer a decade ago or more). Having just heard what's the subject I had somewhat mixed emotions, to say the least. When I finally saw her work, it dawned on me all of a sudden that Immediate Family is a pure art full of depth, delicacy, innocence and straightforward joy.

Mike: some of your best writing in a long time. Obviously, a subject matter that you feel pashionately about, and rightly so. So sad you have to go from this meaningful photography and prose back to ..."The Best Digital SLR for 2015"...... Who cares. As for the subject matter, her photography is art and for those who view it as some form of erotic, it is the viewer with the psychopathology, not the photographer, but such is the state of American Puritanism even today.

It is so tiresome to hear some tell artists what is "permitted" or not. And what we may view or not. If what is created is against the law tell the authorities. Otherwise if you find it distasteful, don't look at it. If someone wants to criticize it on an artistic basis, fine, everyone is entitled to that opinion. Some will say, well, that's just the exercise of Free Speech, and so it is. But when your Free Speech advocates denying the exercise of my free artistic expression your comments aren't worth listening too. Our society is extraordinarily judgmental. We are, as a country, not only quick to judge, but seemingly anxious to do so. It's ironic that the most judgmental frequently are fervent followers of a theology that that cautions against judging others ("Do not judge or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others you will be judged. . ."). Many apologists try to navigate around this, to justify endless judgments of others. Unfortunately, Sally Mann was, at the time of the publication of her book an innocent. Only she, who knows what impact her work had on her children, can say whether she would do it all over again if given that choice. Clearly, there was a price that her family paid for her work. But the work was and is, in my opinion, artistically important and and a joy to see.

As a father, I see love in those pictures. Those are pictures I would like to take if they were my kids. Not sure I would publish them though; I am not an artist. But I am glad there is an artist willing to share us her love of her children.

I hesitated before writing this, because you're a friend of mine and I know your opinion of Sally Mann, and I think we once brushed by this topic and agreed not to discuss it. But I really don't like the subject matter of her children's nude photos. I also think that article was about 50% b.s., and I have a fairly acute b.s. detector.

Before I continue I want to say that I'm a near absolutist on free speech: if somebody stands up and advocate a Communist or Nazi America, that's fine with me, as long as he doesn't shoot anyone. I'm the same way with nudity and porn and gay marriage all the other stuff. My basic position is, if you don't like, don't look at it or don't do it. I also think the fear of pedophiles is way over-blown, and think it's part of a program of police activism aimed at increasing budgets and staffing.

But none of that is not why I don't like Sally Mann's photos. I don't like them because she treated her children as property to be used and made money from. Sure, she loved them as a mother, and as an artist, she treated them as property to be used and made money from. Children of that age have no ability to give informed consent. They just don't.

People IMHO seem to have a hard time separating different facets of an artist's character. Caravaggio murdered a man and was one of the greatest artists of all time; he was still a murderer. Ezra Pound was a great modernist poet, helped discover and support many other famous artists, and also embraced fascism and Nazism. Picasso stole stuff from the Louvre. And so on.

IMHO, being an artist, even a great one, does not always excuse other activities.

As for the b.s., she poses herself as this naive backwoods hippy-ish photographer who also just happens to get grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowments from the Humanities, seems pretty familiar with all the currents of the photographic art world and gets written about in the Times and The Wall Street Journal...and that photo where this Chitlin Switch rube is out cutting her husband's hair...that's a pretty nice house for rube, huh?

So I won't go on. I agree that her photos are beautiful and technically brilliant and also exploitive in a way that I could never approve of. Again, I'm not speaking of her art, I'm speaking of the kids' right to their own images and their right to give informed consent, which at that age, they simply didn't have.

I have no problem with the nudes of her and her husband, and any one else who is old enough to give consent.

[Well, why stop at nudes? (And only a few of Sally's pictures are actually nudes.) Why shouldn't parents need consent to show any pictures of their children? Why are parents and grandparents allowed to post pictures of their kids and grandkids to flickr or Facebook? If the kid can't consent and the kid needs to consent, then it's de facto wrong to post any pictures of children anywhere, isn't it? --Mike]

Thanks to Sally's incredibly important work and sacrifice, Mrs. Kardashian has been able to pimp out her daughters for a billion.

Smartphones are beheading dictators and the aftermath is horrific but viewed in a more geological time scale, this is progress. Sally's work forced progress, unfortunately she has paid a price.

I would love to see a "deluxe" edition of her incredible book.

@John Camp Having the lady cut her gentleman's hair was bog standard practice for middle-class hippies in the late sixties and seventies. I didn't see a barber for about fifteen years back then. Where were you?


I have a fairly acute b.s. detector.

I suspect Ms Mann wouldn't truly apprehend your point of view any more than you hers.

As for the b.s., she poses herself as this naive backwoods hippy-ish photographer who also just happens to get grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowments from the Humanities, seems pretty familiar with all the currents of the photographic art world and gets written about in the Times and The Wall Street Journal

As she was discussing herself prior to the explosion of public interest epitomised by the Times article, I don't see the inconsistency. Indeed, Woodward's 1992 article supports the contention that she was outside of the contemporary arts mainstream.

What a tricky one this is, and a very American dilemma, it seems. My head's with tex andrews, but my heart's with John Camp -- you can set up images of Eden for the camera, but you can't really expect to live there, and you shouldn't be surprised at the reactions of the citizens of Sodom & Gomorrah.

Sally Mann herself mentions Jock Sturges in her article, which gave me pause for thought: an interesting comparison. In my naivete I had assumed he was a producer of slightly dodgy, so-called "coming of age" imagery, not an artist-photographer to be taken seriously. I'm still not entirely convinced I was wrong.

I do wish JC would comment in character, btw: "What would Virgil Flowers think?" could be a useful benchmark...


Dear Mike;
What a profoundly beautiful and moving post and photo. I do hope Sally Mann gets to read it. I would also wish some of those who commented negatively against Sally Mann on the NYT would get to read your kind words as I'm sure some would probably change their minds. Personally I believe most of the comments which were negative and critical of Sally Mann's family images are missing out on one very important point. That is that for some people the need to express their feelings through art isn't a choice but a necessity, a compulsion. One cannot begin to understand it unless you've suffered it or experienced it with someone close to you.They aren't doing it for the public recognition, even though the work eventually is shown publicly. They do it because it's the only clear way they know of expressing themselves, it helps some of them feel at peace above all with themselves and those close to them.
I get the impression Sally Mann suddenly found herself like most parents without time for her own photography as is the situation of most young parents. But unlike most parents she was driven and consumed by a need and passion for self expression which overwhelms her own being. So instead of just giving up or setting the camera aside until the kids grew older, she adapted and kept on. Probably not deliberately or realizing at that moment what an amazing body of work she was creating. Those who are driven like this are not in absolute control, because that's inspiration. It offers you the chance to see and feel differently, however if you stop to analyze it you'll lose it. So mix inspiration, a beautifully inspiring location, three photogenic kids and above all an incredibly talented and hard working artist with a very supportive husband and magic like nothing else was created.
People criticise Sally Mann for her naivety, but try naming one great artist, top athlete or truly great person who wasn't slightly mad or weird and "in their own world." Knowing the odds against success would you have signed up for the first successful Apollo mission? Joined Christopher Columbus' crew or practiced those inordinate amount of hours any of the most legendary top athletes did? To make these impossible feats or create work like Sally Mann's you need to be a little different, young in spirit and very free. Innocent and childlike is necessary ingredient so don't search for your average common sense, because in these situations it's only a handicap.

"Heartbreakingly, the night after seeing the picture with the black bars, she wore her shorts and shirt into the bathtub." Did Sally Mann from that point on stop her photography of the child nude?

"the distinction between the real children and the images difficult for people to understand" In her own words she explains how she used her children as models/objects. I recall reading that some of the photographs were recreations or posed. My memory is of a description of her asking the kid(s) to stay in the water whilst she took more shots despite their complaining of the cold?

Ultimately the final arbiter of the question of consent should rest with her children. Is it not the case that her children do not totally agree with the photographs, was it not the case that her son is the most unhappy?

I am not a journalist but there are some basic questions which have been ignored.

Hypocrisy can be seen in so many aspects of peoples reactions to images of children.

The 'fake' indignation of the broadsheet press over Tierney Gearon's photos of her son, yet the same paper has printed nude photos of black children.

How is one photo bad and another good. What does poverty and colour have to do with this? Are they both bad or both good? If you have no clothes is a photo of you ok? If you have clothes and take them off, is a photo of you not ok?

“I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, "Physicist, Purge Thyself" in Chicago Tribune Magazine (22 June 1969)

Results matter far more than intent.
As Art, Sally Mann's pictures are extremely strong. It is great moving work. From the first tim I saw them, I thought they were just incredibly beautiful. We can never know fully her intent in making the work (but I assume it was exactly what she said it was) but we do know the result. As Pictures they are wonderful.
As for the fallout that the work brought upon her and her family, it's terribly sad. It's unfortunate. But it is also unfathomable to me that it could have been a total surprise.
As a parent, there had to be a moment where the decision was made:
---even if the risk to family and children was deemed small----
Do I take the risk and publish, or not. She chose to take it. Consequences ensued.
No one (I hope) wishes such consequences on her or her children, but for her to claim such risks never crossed her mind seems impossible.
Results matter more than intent.
Ms Mann is responsible for some great Art, and for the fallout it caused her and her subjects.

As has already been pointed out the Fallout is separate from the work, for all but Ms Mann and her children.
Many Artists have suffered consequences for their work, in this case the Artist took personal risk, but also exposed her children to risk.
There is no way to sugar coat that. Only Ms Mann and her Children can know the extent of those consequences, and I believe that she certainly did not want such things to happen, but the fact remains, she is also the only person on earth who could have prevented it.

Sally Mann is of course one of the greatest photographers, and leaves me speechless with admiration.

Her work and the reactions to it shows the best and worst of America; and how it astonishes Europe that views that here are held only in the fringes are so mainstream in American culture.

There is one thing that I have never heard mentioned in regard to her family pictures, but I do suspect makes the reactions to them so much stronger. Her children are stunningly beautiful, and as your image of her shows, so is she. No kidding: catwalk, cover of Vogue, supermodel - that level of beautiful if they should ever choose to exploit it.

Combined with a photographic talent of her stature and the resulting images have an emotional impact that is almost unparalleled and probably provokes very confusing emotions in people who then have no idea what to do with them.

I hypothesize that many will be at a complete loss how to deal with the sheer emotion that the aesthetic of her imagery and the underlying beauty of those astonishing children. And they are naked. The aesthetic and emotional arousal is perhaps easily confused with sexual arousal and that makes many people deeply uncomfortable.

As they are unable to unpick it all however they must condemn it, afraid needlessly of what they might find in that closed box. Very few would find anything unpleasant if they had the courage to look inside that place they find so threatening, all that is there is love and beauty.

Thank you once again for your wonderful site.

MUST HAVE NEW EDITION. Twin Palms is doing better work than ever.

I love Sally Mann's work, but necked kids don't turn me on.
I do appreciate that her images are carefully composed and taken with tripod mounted cameras, but those with people seem stilted, posed, and unnatural. That's what they made Leicas and Rolleis for. (Or even Graflex -- see Weston's photos of Neil.)
Porn? NO! Pretentious? Yes.

I call my self a professional level "art" photographer. I am not biased as to subject matter, rather to the art of the subject photographed. I think a good portion of her photos of her children are wonderful and glowing, full of the love of her mother. I was saddened by the New York Times article, because there is a disturbing note of naivette in Sally's writing. She talks a lot about her feelings for her children, even admits to the kind of sexual feeling any mother would have at the birth of a child. And for all of her prose describing her intentions about publishing her childrens' pictures, I have to offer that to do so in this society endangers not just her children, first, but Sally and her husband. Prurience comes easily in this society which is very confused and ill-informed about sex, alcohol, and drugs. And some of the worst reactions to her photos, no matter how few, are hurtful and not easily forgotten certainly by her children but by Sally herself. I would be so affected if it were I.

I am grateful that John Camp wrote as he did and I commend him, and command you for publishing his comment. I think he makes a number of good points. The issue of informed consent, however, is flawed. If we took that to its logical conclusion no-one would be allowed to pursue ballet in any serious way, or be circumcised, or be raised a Catholic or a Jew. This then places even more responsibility with the parents. For some children an unreasonable pursuit like ballet is a conviction they cannot be deflected from. With her children's participation in Sally Mann's photography there is something less child-driven.

As far as the Mann children are concerned, I expect they started like me as a child, curious about the marvellous camera, in awe of the photographs produced and wanting to be in more of them. The photographs of me and my brothers as children in another country are what drew me to photography in the first place.

The children of artists will naturally be enlisted in their work, and there is always some self-serving element to that. It will have had its positives for the children, and cost them too. I think that's life. Sally Mann's piece in the NYT has its own agenda and I agree with John Camp that the claim of backwoods naivety is not very credible. I applaud her work and admire it very much. With the same talent and skill I don't think I would have done what she's done. Ultimately Sally Mann's writing is irrelevant, but certainly interesting. We don't have the full story. The intent is everything, but does she as an artist fully understand her intent? I don't know that any artists does. She has photographed what she has photographed and the pictures are out there and they are the unique and perhaps at times unsettling images that will be endure.

I love this book - the images and the story it tells. I view this book from the eyes and mind of a photographer with a family and was envious of the images, the place, the family willingness and the courage of all involved to be honest. Exploitation, bad parenting and the sexual-ness of the images never even crossed my mind.

I found the article and all of this commentary very interesting. I wholeheartedly agree with her innocent view of these images. She was only able to make these images because of her naivete and we are better for it.

But unfortunately she was naive to think that everyone would see the images as innocently as she created them. I think she paid a much higher price than she deserved, but such is life.

I would love to see a higher quality/expanded version of this collection or, yes, a print offer!

Shortly after reading John Camp's comment about "informed consent" I found myself looking at a billboard in the street showing a smiling child advertising a supermarket. No possibility of informed consent, and commercial exploitation. Do people who advance this argument against Sally Mann typically also oppose the use of children in advertising? Some may, but I'm willing to bet that most don't.

There are many qualifications one can use for Sally Mann’s work. But ‘naive’ doesn't bubble up in my mind. Overviewing her oeuvre it is obvious that it is all about the intensity of life (and death) and Mann is not afraid of exploring sharp edges. That is the reason why her work is so strong isn't it?. Some might get an uneasy feeling about it. Amen.
Comparing her acts with murder, fascism or theft, like John Camp does, is repulsive. It is also typical that there are so many aggressive reactions concerning Immediate Family (this title alone should take away any accusation) and not towards Mann’s other work that includes decomposing corpses, bodies in decline and death masks. Those pictures are much more uncomfortable to watch than those of nude kids in their natural habitat.

My favorite portrait of me as a four year old was taken by my mother when I was fully nude at the swimming pool. It is a full frontal nude picture. This picture is in the family album and shown to friends and family. No one thinks it is odd or strange. It never occurred to me that any consent on my part should be required.

My parents are very, very far from being anywhere close to a hippy culture. My family culture is so conservative that I consider it anachronistic. I enjoy a show like Downton Abbey not because it seems like an odd and remote culture, but because it portrays a very familiar cultural environment that I am accustomed to (minus all the wealth, unfortunately).

I have news for a some of the readers of this post. In most cultures around the world, including Western European cultures, infant nudity is a very natural part of life. For the overwhelming majority of people living on planet earth (about 7 billion persons), there is nothing odd, strange or shameful about a nude child that is still some years away from puberty.

If infant nudity in any way offends or shames you, please understand that makes you an odd human being, in the sense that you are part of a very small minority of people. Negative reactions to infant nudity are a cultural oddity of a small subset of the American population. I do not mean to say that a negative reaction to infant nudity is wrong or incorrect or bad, I just want to point out that it is rare. For a few decades of the 20th century, men with long hair also produced feelings of offense or of shame in a large part of the population. It was just a cultural thing; now it would be very difficult to even try and explain why this was so.

So, if anyone is going to publicly object to infant nudity, please make sure to explain carefully why you are doing it, because otherwise, most of us won't understand.

On the pedophile front, though there might be isolated cases in which nude children attract pedophiles, or stalkers, these cases are not in sufficient numbers to support the argument that nude children become victims of harassment. The reason for this is that hundreds of millions of nude children around the world have never been victims of any sort of harassment or stalking.
On the other hand, statistics will show that most victims if pedophiles have never been nude in public in person, photograph, or video. The reason for this is that pedophiles do not choose their victims based on how they are dressed.

On the whole Sally Mann controversy, all I'll say is that it is a fascinating and tragic story and... let's play "Blame the Victim".

Tough subject Mike. I hope you wade through it with the usual good sense, and apologies for any language on my part that seems less civil. I really do respect everyone's opinion and hope that same respect (if not agreement) is awarded mine.

John Camp and Mike both ask valid questions. Sometimes there are more good questions than good answers.

She was kind of naive not to have expected all kinds of responses from the public. Frankly, when I first saw her work, I personally was very surprised that she sometimes photographed her kids nude. Yes, it can be argued that it is art but she was their mother first and a photographer second. I think that there is a responsibility that comes with being a photographer that we sometimes fail to recognize.

There is something of a difference between posting Facebook pictures and publishing an ostensibly commercial work based on pictures of your kids. [Artwork is not commercial, either legally or morally. This is a common mistake, but it's mistaken nonetheless. —Ed.] That said, I would and do hesitate to post any pictures of anyone I know, much less my kid(s) on any part of the Internet that I don't control in some way. The Internet is forever, and anything you post there you really don't own anymore. So I keep it to my (mostly) worthless ramblings about cameras, computers, video games, and so on.

Also, Calvin Trillin provides guidance in this area.

From this NYT profile



In ''Family Man,'' he says that a writer's obligation to his art and to his family depends on the quality of the art. He offers the Dostoyevsky Test: ''If you have reason to believe that you're another Dostoyevsky, you can say anything you need to say.'' And if you don't, you can't.

End Quote

As a large format photographer, I admire what she does with that 8x10 and her pictures are beautiful but I agree with John Camp. My view is that she chose to put herself out there. You can't sell your soul to the devil and then complain its too hot.

John Camp, you are the person 'Immediate Family' was not meant for. The salacious nature of your commentary clearly indicates that you should recuse yourself and avoid visual contact with images that activate your self-avowed H(humble)O(opinion). I suggest you try Sally Mann's book, "What Remains". This is a completely different area of artistic expression, although I wonder if you will have yet more troublesome thoughts about consent.

It's not often that my political blog reading crosses up with the photo blogs, but it did this weekend.


Many of the reactions to Mann's work make more sense when viewed from this angle: many people give lip service to modern moral standards but actually use internal models that are decades--if not centuries--older.

Who else but Mike would have the first-hand inside scoop AND his own lovely photo of Ms. Mann?

The fact that North America (and to perhaps a lesser extent the rest of Western "civilization" is both so hung up on the body and so ignorant of the the nature and purpose of art makes me sigh. When I see Sally caring for her husband as his body declines (what irony) I just want to hug both of them.

I support Sally Mann and condemn her critics whole-heartedly and without reservation.

These are incredible photos, and about as non sexual as photos of naked kids can be. If these turn you on, turn yourself in. I ran around naked as a kid, my child does the same, as free from the guilt of a 100 different dogmas as can be.

Rolling around in the grass of a private, secluded garden in the creator's clothes is a right, no laws need to uphold this. Stalking is a crime, an evil cowardly hateful crime.

Capturing that kind of emotion in kids is extremely hard, doing it this beautifully blows my mind. This woman is truly a great.

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