April 17, 2015

"For all the righteous concern people expressed about the welfare of my children, what most of them failed to understand was that taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering."

"When I stepped behind the camera and my kids stepped in front of it, I was a photographer and they were actors, and we were making a photograph together. And in a similar vein, many people mistook the photographs for reality or attributed qualities to my children (one letter-­writer called them 'mean') based on the way they looked in the pictures. The fact is that these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind and shade. These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph. Even the children understood this distinction...."

Writes Sally Mann, whose very arty photographs of her (sometimes naked) children were published to much elite acclaim in 1992 and — simultaneously — intense criticism as “manipulative,” “sick,” “twisted,” “vulgar” — in part because of what Mann calls the "cosmically bad timing" of coinciding with the controversy about Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Mapplethorpe had "included images of children along with sadomasochistic and homoerotic imagery," and: "Into this turbulent climate, I had put forth my family pictures."

From the comments there (at the NYT):
There is absolutely no question that Sally Mann is a photographic artist of great stature. There is also no question that were she not, she would have had her children taken from the home decades ago, and probably would have been jailed. If the father down the block from Mann took similar photos and made them public, he would have been thrown under the jail house. She was, and remains, ethically tone deaf - at best. To use one's children, who cannot possibly understand the ramifications of what they are doing, as one's subjects to create sexually charged images, is the grossest violation of the concept of informed consent. and is inexcusable.

35 comments:

rhhardin said...

Actual mothering mothers have been known to take photographs too.

Maybe Dorothy Rabinowitz cat get another Pulitzer writing against the mob.

Jason said...

Ceci nes't pas mon enfant.

T Rellis said...

My ten month old is fat fat fat and I love to take pictures of her many rolls. My three year old refuses to wear clothes for very long so most pictures of him are naked pictures. I hope nobody wants to take them and haul me away.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Someone should stage a photo of 72 young girls with a grinning Mohamed Atta.

The Bergall said...

What psycho babble....

tim maguire said...

A mother does not stop being a mother when she steps behind a camera. A child does not stop being a child when she steps in front of a camera.

As Bergall said, "What psycho babble..."

I hate this aspect of some artists--the willingness to excuse any behavior, no matter how obnoxious or abusive, because it's "art."

MadisonMan said...

Posting without reading the article, but:

If you're using your own children to do your work (did she pay them?), you are burdening them, which is unfair to them.

Did the kids think that the person behind the camera was Mom? Does it matter if she doesn't think the camera subjects are her children if they think she remains their Mom while photographing?

Popville said...

I can't even stand celebs discussing their children on TV. It's morally reprehensible to place them in public. So any further actions are beyond the pale. On the other hand, when folks refuse to talk about their kids at all, they gain my respect regardless of my opinion of them otherwise.

Mark said...

So, in the commenter's world, the problem is with the hypothetical dad taking pictures of his kids and not with the society that is becoming more Victorian by the moment.

Seems the Left which has done an excellent job of marginalizing Churches had decided to become the home of the worst of the Church Ladies.

jimbino said...

It's OK to cut off the foreskin of your atheist kid at birth, but not OK to film him naked.

This country is twisted.

I guess what Amerikans need is some videos of a moil sucking on his little dick after cutting off sensitive skin.

Mark said...

MadisonMan, throughout history kids have been expected to work for an with their families. The past 50 (75?) years have been the first one in history where large cohorts of children have been effectively treated as masters of their households.

This may be why so many people are perfectly comfortable telling others to their faces how those others should live and think.

Fen said...

Is she a liberal? Because to liberals, kids are property. To be disposed of or used as wanted.

DarkHelmet said...

I can do whatever I want, whether it is legal or not, moral or not, ethical or not. Because Art.

Gabriel said...

I sincerely hope that the standard for a "sexually charged" photograph of a child is not that they are nude.

If it is, I'd say that the wrongness is in the mind of the audience and not in the artist.

Is it Catch-22? The patient says that all the Rorshach blobs remind him of sex. The doctor says "you seem to think about sex a lot". The patient says "You're the one showing all the dirty pictures."

CStanley said...

She talks about the privacy of the farm and how absurd it would have been for them to wear bathing suits and such. Which is fine- the nudity seemed appropriate to them there. But to even raise that point is to acknowledge that their nudity was inappropriate in other contexts, yet she foisted their images to the rest of the world!

TosaGuy said...

"...taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering."

But was being in those pictures an act that was separate from being a child to one's mother?

tim maguire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tim maguire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eleanor said...

I would like to know how her children feel now they're adults. Will they let her photograph her grandchildren for a new book?

Brian said...

OK, so they "understood this distinction". But did they *believe* it?

Because it is bullshit.

Pookie Number 2 said...

"...taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering."

Just like molesting them would have been, I guess.

Anonymous said...

I'm troubled by two things:

1. The photos weren't just shots of Mann's children spontaneously frolicking naked. Every one of those photos was carefully staged--including the children's poses--by Mann herself.

2. She says the children were "not my children" when she was photographing them. But she would never have have had the access to them that allowed her to photograph them were she not their mother. She was able, as their mother, to get them to do exactly what she wanted.

So there is something awfully disingenuous about this essay.

Furthermore: Yes, people, in the privacy of their homes, are free to walk around naked if they like. But there is something odd about going naked ALL THE TIME--and having your children do so--just because you can. These kids weren't just swimming in the nude. They were roller-skating in the nude! More disingenuousness on the author's part.

texasyankee said...

One thing missing from this discussion: if the pictures are "sexually charged" then a prosecutor can claim they are child pornography. Anyone viewing or downloading them can be charged with possessing child pornography.

Laura said...

"For all the righteous concern people expressed about the welfare of my children, what most of them failed to understand was that [publishing] those pictures was an act separate from mothering."

Art sold is commerce, yet the challenge for artists has always been rubes: moneyed rubes and outspoken ones with influence on the former.

Mommy Wars, episode 247,365: Art book publishing vs. Facebook publishing, "Oedipus Specs"

mccullough said...

This is an excellent article. Very intelligent. I liked the photographs in the article, as well.

I get the impression she would not have done this if she had known what would happen but she still seems ambivalent.

Bryan C said...

"One thing missing from this discussion: if the pictures are "sexually charged" then a prosecutor can claim they are child pornography. Anyone viewing or downloading them can be charged with possessing child pornography."

Which is utterly absurd and unfair by any rational standard. But obviously works well for witchfinder/prosecutors and others who think the main purpose of the law is to provide a convenient way to immediately convert any given person into a felon whenever convenient.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I don't see how this intersects with the Mapplethorpe photos at all. They were earlier (in the 80s), and I can't recall any of children, only the homoerotic stuff. It does, however, intersect nicely with the case of Jock Sturges, whose book of (again, mostly nude) photos of children came out in the early 90s. But Sturges' children weren't his own.

Oso Negro said...

Good Lord, our society has become twisted. There is nothing inherently evil in naked children, nor does making an image of a naked child turn such nudity into evil. Yes, there are a number of marginal individuals who are aroused by it, but that is not justification for hysterical prudery.

n.n said...

A remarkable documentary of liberal psychology that reduces human lives to a model or a clump of cells. Another psycho-sexual orientation that should be selectively normalized by special interest psychiatrists.

MayBee said...

So, in the commenter's world, the problem is with the hypothetical dad taking pictures of his kids and not with the society that is becoming more Victorian by the moment.

Seems the Left which has done an excellent job of marginalizing Churches had decided to become the home of the worst of the Church Ladies


A million yeses!
And yes to Oso Negro, too!

MayBee said...

So, in the commenter's world, the problem is with the hypothetical dad taking pictures of his kids and not with the society that is becoming more Victorian by the moment.

Seems the Left which has done an excellent job of marginalizing Churches had decided to become the home of the worst of the Church Ladies


A million yeses!
And yes to Oso Negro, too!

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

Artistic issues aside, I find it odd that these kids were running around naked all the time. They weren't toddlers. But hey, not my circus, not my monkeys.

Gahrie said...

Pete townsend and gary Glitter have both voiced their support for this woman.

Gahrie said...

My problem isn't with her taking photos of her kids. I'm a little troubled about her making money off of it, but I don't think it was in any way a crime.

My problem is the reaction that would occur if a father was to publish a similar book today.

Apparently double standards are good when they help women.

MisterBuddwing said...

Ah, yes. I remember this brouha-haha.

Actually, what I recall more than the original article was the storm of readers' letters that followed. If my increasingly failing memory serves, The New York Times Magazine actually devoted two extended Letters to the Editor columns to all the reaction. The letters, as Mann herself notes, fell into two basic categories: The ones that accused her of exploiting her children, and the ones that said, in so many words, "These photographs are works of art, which means the kids weren't exploited, so if you think they were, you're the one with the problem, not Mann or her children."

I recall one letter that seized on Sally Mann's 1992 comment that she photographs only in the summer because “nothing happens during the other seasons." That, as far as the reader was concerned, was proof positive that Mann's work was all about nudity.

Another Aha! moment for another reader was the part in the original article when Mann's children gleefully insisted that their mother pose nude for the Times photographer (“Shoot her naked, shoot her naked”). That supposedly proved that deep down, the children resented being made to pose in the altogether. (Mann, if memory serves, ended up standing behind a wooden rail fence, apparently nude, her private parts safely hidden by the horizontal beams.)

But perhaps the most striking, saddest letter of all (which you can find linked to the online reprint of the 1992 article) was from a woman who said that, as a girl, she'd been drafted into being a nude model for her artist mother:

"As an uncomfortable-on-the-inside, giggling-and-smiling-on-the-outside preadolescent and adolescent nude model for my artist mother, I wonder how Sally Mann's work is imprinting itself on her children's sexuality.

"It's what I learned through modeling -- that my body had no boundaries -- that was so damaging. I had no sense of my body as a private place, worthy of care and protection. I was a thing -- to be used at whim ('Picture time!').

"Sally Mann's 'naked' photo is hardly as revealing or unsettled as the pictures of her own children. Why is she unwilling to go where she asks them to?"

The original NYT article came out well before blogs and message boards and social media came to dominate the scene. I'd occasionally wondered how Sally Mann and her photography would fare in today's atmosphere. I guess now we know.