Every parent experiences her child’s naked body exposed sometimes, but few parents photograph the experience, and rarely does a parent exhibit such photographs publicly. One courageous mother who did, Sally Mann, became famous and earned the respect and admiration of many other parents and photographers. Her three children are now grown, having survived the silly controversy over their mother’s work, and we now have the precious benefit of hindsight in their mother’s fascinating memoir: “Hold Still” (1).
There is much bad news for Sally Mann’s enthusiastic critics. It turns out that Mrs. Mann isn’t merely a serious photographer, she’s a good writer and a profound thinker as well. On top of that, she comes from a rather distinguished family whose history would be worth reading in itself even if she had never picked up a camera. I wonder how many of her superficial critics can say that much about themselves. Sally Mann’s real “crime” was not that she exploited her children (the reason most normal people become parents), but that unlike most parents she had the courage to challenge religious tradition by “uncovering her children’s nakedness.”
In 1998 I was browsing in the Barnes and Noble’s bookstore on 18th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, when I came across Sally’s book “Immediate Family” (2), which featured photographs of her three small children posing nude in everyday life around the family farm in Virginia. The book on display also featured some pages torn by (apparently) some confused and disgruntled crusader for body shame.
The petty vandalism in a New York bookshop surprised me, because I had been living in Europe for the previous nine years so I had only briefly heard about Sally’s work and the ensuing controversy. In Europe an image of a top-free 11-year-old girl was used as an album cover (3), and books by British photographer David Hamilton (4), and the Swiss sex education book “Show Me!” (5) also featured images of nude children, but they never suffered any such attacks as far as I knew. Hamilton’s books included romanticized images of young girls that were closer to what might be called erotic art, and “Show Me!” included images of little boys with genital erections and little girls reaching out to touch them. None of these images seemed inappropriate to me, and if some Europeans thought they were inappropriate they didn’t feel their belief gave them the right to damage somebody else’s property or attempt to censor everybody who disagrees with their opinions.
“Hold Still” is the story behind the story, describing Sally Mann’s life from her own childhood to the present (she’s now over 60), as well as offering some fascinating stories about her own parents and ancestors. There is a wealth of information about her experiences but I was disappointed that the book doesn’t say much about the kids’ lives. The book doesn’t say anything about her children’s sexual development and their early sexual education, if any. That’s none of anybody’s business? Neither is anything about her children or her relationships with them. So a report or at least mention of what kind of sex education little Emmett, Jessie and Virginia had – if any – is conspicuous by its absence.
In the BBC series “The Genius of Photography” (6) Sally said photographing her children deepened, complicated and strengthened her interactions with her children. But we aren’t told the details of how their interactions changed or improved. Most of “Hold Sill” is about Sally Mann’s own life and the possible hereditary influences from her forbears. She says her father (a country doctor) and mother didn’t lavish a lot of attention on her or her older brothers. Sally says when she was growing up hers was not a family that touched. “There was no kissing” and even verbal expressions of love were largely absent. “I never heard the words ‘I love you.'” Her father was a dog lover, and as with many pet lovers he did express great love for his animals. One of his beloved dogs slept in the same bed with him, but little Sally was banished to her own bed. Little Sally was cared for primarily by her black nanny Gee Gee, who did take good care of the child, but probably couldn’t and didn’t satisfy little Sally’s need for physical affection.
At a time when doctors were awakened during the night to go out on house calls, little Sally’s father probably didn’t have much free time for his children. But Sally does mention that her dad used to read her the comics regularly before she learned to read herself, took her for rides in his expensive cars, and he carefully recorded the dates on her childhood artwork. Sally was a beautiful child herself, and her dad took pictures of her with his old Leica. A letter he wrote to little Sally was signed “Lots of love to you, Daddy.” I wonder if one reason Sally’s dad often appeared somewhat cold is because Sally’s mom – whose relationship with her daughter was strained and sometimes infuriating – might have demanded “proper distance” between dad and daughter, as is common in modern families.
The author describes a letter she once wrote to her father praising his exceptionally kind treatment of black people, but after mailing it she realized that what she had written was essentially a “love letter” to her father. She tried to get the letter back before it was delivered but she was unsuccessful. When her father receives the letter his reaction is described in some detail.
What about Sally’s famous children? They were the subjects of the controversial photographs, but they are minor characters in this memoir. There are no such intimate glimpses of the emotional lives of her own children and their interaction with each other or with Sally and their father. That focus on herself rather than the kids sounds like a primary purpose of this memoir is self-defense. The reader is being reassured that Sally is a clear-headed and responsible person, not a sex maniac, pedophile, or merely confused and reckless like her critics. But unfortunately the avoidance of discussing intimacy and sex education has the effect of implicitly validating the traditional belief that sex is bad, dirty, etc. so kids need to be protected from it.
Interest in photography is normal but I wonder if Sally’s intense passion for photography was partly influenced by the crisis many women experienced growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminists were saying that being a mother and housewife is boring. In order to feel truly fulfilled a woman needs to do more, such as attend university, work outside the home, or be an artist. The pedophobic tone of that viewpoint is deeply disturbing to me. What could be more fulfilling than being a good parent? But like many women of her time (and after), Sally apparently needed to be more than “merely” a good parent. A mystery is why Sally chose photography to satisfy the feminist ideal of the politically correct modern woman.
Hopefully someday Sally’s kids will write a much more important memoir about their own experience of growing up in the modern, liberal Mann household, and their relationships with their controversial mother. Being photographed nude was probably not the center of their lives, and even becoming famous and controversial was probably not some overwhelming influence on their lives. Theirs was an unusual family, with a very courageous and creative mother. That’s the most interesting part of the story to me, but it might not be the most significant thing to the children. No parent is perfect, but I hope the kids now realize that their mother’s family photographs have broad cultural significance and possibly continuing value in combating the Western tradition of promoting body shame.
Although nudists commonly deny that nudity has anything to do with sex or the sexual revolution, it’s hard to deny that by “nudity” what everyone really means is exposure of the sexual organs. Since the vagina is internal and the tip of the clitoris protruding erect is only visible when a girl’s legs are spread apart, in effect images of Sally daughters were never taken (or exhibited) with their genital organs exposed. Nonetheless, even photographs of her unclothed little daughters with their legs together upset a lot of confused people. None of the published images even center on the children’s genital area. Although the children’s nudity around their home was common, there is no indication that the Manns might have been social nudists who visited naturist/nudist resorts where other families are nude as is more common in Europe.
A 1950s photography book that influenced Sally was “The Family of Man” (7), which included an image of an unclothed child seen from behind. The follow-up volume “The Family of Woman” (8) included an image of an unclothed young girl posing in “full frontal” nudity, but Sally doesn’t mention that second volume. Neither of those books were highly controversial, in part because their subjects weren’t primarily nude children, and in part due to the different period of their publication – before the hysteria surrounding daycare centers in the 1980s. In contrast, Sally’s family work was published when the mass hysteria over child sex abuse was well-established around 1990. Although Sally says she was only vaguely aware of the hysteria and was taken by surprise when her work was attacked on supposedly moral grounds, her publisher must have known and expected it. Didn’t Sally’s publisher inform her in advance? Ironically, by denying any suggestion that she deliberately risked notoriety she detracts from the heroic quality of her work.
Sally’s individual photographs of her children are not extraordinary works of beautiful art. They are documentary-style glimpses of everyday life. The technical quality of the images is great – much higher than the average photographer – and each image can stand on its own, but the priceless value of her family work is the portrait of her family that the whole group of images together offer. Do the published images provide an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive portrait of the Mann family? Probably not. Hence, it’s safer to call Sally’s work “art” rather than documentary.
Like her controversial contemporary, Jock Sturges (9), Sally used a large format camera, which is slow and cumbersome for such fast and furious subjects as children. I love large format film myself, and used it for some of the images in my own photo-documentary Girl Becomes Woman but a smaller and more portable 35mm camera with autofocus is more practical for photographing children. If Sally’s kids ever resented being photographed, it’s probably not because they were photographed nude, but because they were photographed at all using such slow and cumbersome methods.
All in all, “Hold Still” is a good book, much more satisfying than the previous film “What Remains: the Life and Work of Sally Mann” (10). But the story is still incomplete. We need to hear the voices of Sally’s children. One of her daughters, Jessie, was interviewed by the photography journal, Aperture, when she was 18, but the interview was too brief. I’m sure there is much more to be told about this fascinating and heroic family, especially from the children’s point of view.
- Mann, Sally. Hold Sill: a Memoir with Photographs. Little, Brown, 2015.
- Mann, Sally. Immediate Family. Aperture Foundation, 1992.
- Blind Faith. Polydor Records, 1969.
- Hamilton, David. The Age of Innocence. Aurum Press, 1992.
- Fleischhauer-Hardt, Helga (text), McBride, Will (photography). Show Me! A Picture Book of Sex for Children and Adults. St. Martin’s Press, 1975.
- Kirby, Tim (Director). The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. BBC, 2009.
- Museum of Modern Art. The Family of Man. 1955.
- Mason, Jerry Ed. The Family of Woman. Penguin, 1979.
- Sturges, Jock. Radiant Identities. Aperture, 1994.
- Cantor, Steven (Director). What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann. Zeitgeist Video, 2006.