When photographer Sally Mann was a girl, she remembers, her mom and dad went out for drinks with Carson McCullers in the Mann family’s home town of Lexington, Virginia. You want to talk about the morbidity and sorrow of the American South? It was all there, embodied in one person – McCullers, author of one of the great Southern novels, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. “My parents would come home and say, ‘That is the saddest woman we have ever known,'” Mann says. “She just had this profound sadness.
“There’s a certain quality in Southern novelists, an awareness of the great sadness of life. More so than you’re going to find in Wooster, Massachusetts. Just think of them all. Flannery O’Connor. Eudora Welty.”
Lexington is in south-west Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Apart from her college education and a year in Europe, Mann has spent all her life there, within three miles of the house in which she was born. Her father was the local doctor. Time stands still. In the foreword to her book Immediate Family (1992), she wrote, “All my life things have been the same.”
Nostalgia hangs like heavy air in the Immediate Family photos. But nostalgia for what? Mann is a canny photographer and she loads many of these pictures up with tricks, ambivalence. Eight pictures from Immediate Family are in the Auckland Art Gallery’s Mixed-up Childhood, a provocative and intellectually deep show of local and international art that is summarised in a quote from one of its participants, American artist Loretta Lux: “Childhood has been idealised as a lost garden paradise to which we can never return … But the imaginary kingdom is nothing more than a projection of adult ideas and concerns, an expression of our own yearnings.”
Or, how innocent are the children and how fallen are the adults? Now more than ever – Michael Jackson, anyone? – these kinds of questions are relevant. Not that Mann had any meanings in mind when she began Immediate Family in 1984. “I didn’t have any reason for doing it other than pure interest in what was going on, the visual nature of it.” In this decade-long project, she photographed her son Emmett and daughters Jessie and Virginia around the house, in the fields, by the creek – the setting is rural, compounding that old-South nostalgia – in black-and-whites that were intimate, sometimes uncomfortably so. The kids might be sick or injured, posing or playing up, clothed or – more often – naked.
In pictures like “Blowing Bubbles”, “Candy Cigarettes” and “The New Mothers”, it’s about how knowingly the girls present themselves as grown-ups – they’re cute, innocuous images. From others, like “The Wet Bed” and “Hayhook” – a naked girl dangles from a hook on a porch – you might get the disorientating sense of witnessing something private made public (which struck author Jeffrey Eugenides as just the quality he was aiming for in writing The Virgin Suicides: “a cloistered feminine world … mercilessly spied on by an unseen viewer”).
Of course, Mann cleared the pictures with her children when the book was published. They were happy with them then and apparently remain so (the three are now young adults). In a recent interview, Jessie said, “We were all drama queens, actors on a stage, doing our thing and putting on a performance.” Photography buffs often cite Victorian artist Julia Margaret Cameron, who shot her kids as pre-Raphaelite waifs, and though the comparison is flattering, Mann says, her children’s expressions were so much more intense, sometimes glowering – “looks that you don’t find in Julia Margaret Cameron”.
But, yes, her position as mother is vital. “It does make a difference in the way the pictures are seen.” Immediate Family is a good reminder that, in art, context is as important as content – were a male stranger to try to make an image like “Hayhook” or “The Wet Bed” (a naked girl sprawled, sleeping on a stained mattress), he would probably be chastised. So there is a layer to the images: maternal intimacy, maternal projections. Also, maternal trust.
“These pictures required complete complicity from the children,” she says. “They made the pictures. You can’t force children to be in pictures. You can’t make them pliant and they were always pliant and always participants. They’re not going to be that way with anybody but a mother, I wouldn’t think.”
Yet, at the same time, Mann was also working on a series called At Twelve, in which she shot local 12-year-old girls – not her own kids. “It’s funny, because I have a good rapport with teenagers. I guess I’m enough of a rebel and iconoclast. I’m not a fuddy-dud mom. So when I would show up to take those pictures, they would think of me as a sort of a non-mom. A cool mom. And it almost became a peer relationship with the 12-year-olds. There was a lot of banter and a lot of chat. I got to know every one of them pretty well. When they’re that age, it’s easy to develop a relationship with them, but when they’re three and four, I think there’s a natural suspicion of people.”
At Twelve also shows that, despite a playful air of fantasy and contrivance, darker facts can be inadvertently revealed in these pictures. In one, Mann posed a girl with the girl’s mother’s boyfriend. He is in an oil-stained José Cuervo T-shirt, leaning heavily and sullenly into the picture. The girl keeps a distance. “I kept trying to get the little girl to stand closer to that man because it was a vertical picture and it would be much more effective. But she just wouldn’t do it. So, as a consequence, that man’s big, ham-like arm hangs down between them. I didn’t know at the time that he was raping that child. The mother threw him out and he came and banged on the door. She put the rifle to the door and shot, and it went through his head.
“And he was perfectly fine. It didn’t kill him. Very strange story.”
Back to the more innocent world of Immediate Family. One of the loveliest pictures – one of Mann’s favourites, too – is called “The Alligator Approaches”. Can we take this one apart to see how the process worked? In each picture, Mann says, there was a kernel of truth that was nudged or expanded. “Every picture had something in it that they were doing. I’m just not that great an artist that I could think of all the wonderful things that children do.” In “The Alligator Approaches”, Jessie is asleep on a chair by a river. On the bank, facing us and behind her, is the form of an alligator.
Okay, a toy alligator. “A rainstorm came up, the alligator was there … I didn’t put it there. It’s an inflatable alligator. I might have put her sitting out there in the rain. She was probably dancing around in the rain and I said, ‘Just hold still for a minute, sit down for a second.’
“It’s sort of metaphorical. That is a picture that belies what I said earlier. That picture really is about something. It’s about the serene, untroubled child sitting in the foreground and lurking in the background is the embodiment of evil, or fear or danger. That contrast. As a mother, that concept was always writ large in my mind. I couldn’t see a car backing out of a parking lot without thinking, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to run over my child.’ I was one of those mothers whose mind accelerates to the worst possible conclusion. I was always afraid they were going to drown. I was always afraid they were going to get hit by a car. I don’t know what psychological diagnosis there is for this, but I’ve always been aware of the dark side of almost any situation. How things can go badly. Even though my life has been blessed with very few problems.”
Here’s one she mercifully avoided: a combination of the material – naked kids dangling, sprawling, frolicking, posing – and the times meant that many have a memory, Mann says, of Immediate Family hitting the same Reagan/Bush-era art-controversy that was attached to works by Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and Jock Sturges. Sturges, who photographed nude kids on beaches, was raided by the FBI and charged, his negatives and computers seized. Nothing like this happened to Mann, partly because only one public institution, in Philadelphia, took the Immediate Family show – “My guess is that it was too dangerous for museums to take on at that time in America” – and partly because she circumvented any threat of prosecution. She ran the pictures past the same FBI behavioural scientist who nabbed Sturges and got the all clear. Meanwhile, she had a weird, peculiarly Southern connection to the Christian Right, whose senator Jesse Helms was behind much of the anti-art hysteria. “Pat Robertson, the big televan-gelist guy – my father delivered him.” So we have Dr Mann to blame? “Yeah, we do!” Mann jokes. “Couldn’t he have just put a pillow over his head?”
Seriously, though, some of the criticism stung. A “bad mother” accusation grew around the idea that, for example, she was making art of her son’s bloody nose rather than tending to it. “In a word, that’s all bullshit. No one who doesn’t know me can base any criticism of my mothering on those pictures.” The kinds of tricks that the pictures play – Emmett’s nude torso is splattered in a shot that, were it not called “Popsicle Drips”, might have you concerned – fed that bad mother stuff. “They say, ‘Oh my God, that child has a terrible nose bleed.’ If you look carefully, that nose bleed is so old, it’s crusted on his mouth. He came home looking like that.
“If I’m going to be charitable about any criticism I had, most people were concerned about the children. There are two issues that these pictures raise. Is harm being done to the children? In the pictures. And, does it give permission to other people for whom the pictures would be less natural? Does it somehow encourage people to try and do this work? Other people can’t take these pictures, because they don’t have the rapport that I had with my children, and they don’t have the lifestyle that we had. Those were all just perfectly natural pictures. But most people don’t live a life like I do – this is America, it’s all suburbs.
“Now that 15 years have passed, if anyone’s concerned about the kids – they’re fine, they’ve turned out absolutely normal, they’re great, they love the pictures, they love their mother, blah blah. And we haven’t seen a rash of people trying to coerce their children into modelling for pictures that make them uncomfortable. I think that now, this far along, the pictures can just be judged in the history of photography as art. They can stand on their own without those peripheral issues.”
Really, it’s old news for Mann. The children grew out of the pictures in the mid-90s and the background moved forward: Mann’s work since has focused on Southern landscapes, including Civil War sites. Possible continuity: just as danger lurked in the Edenic innocence of Immediate Family, so death haunts the work since. She has gone deeper South, into Georgia and Mississippi, where brutal history and fecund beauty are inexhaustible resources. Morbidity and sorrow. “A European traveller came through here and he said that he was more comfortable in the South. When asked why, he said that it’s the only part of America that’s known defeat. It has that pain that old civilisations have; it’s the only part of America with that kind of pain.”
MIXED-UP CHILDHOOD, Auckland Art Gallery, February 24-May 29.