This Week In Photography Books: Sally Mann

by Jonathan Blaustein

I write about my kids all the time.
You know this.

(You, the faceless crowd of e-readers.)

I remember in the Summer of 2012, when my daughter was born, I shared my confusion about changing her first diaper. How do you deal with a tiny vajayjay?

Are you gentle, like handling a fragile print? Or do you have at it, like scrubbing a recalcitrant dish in the sink. (Off, spaghetti sauce, off!)

It felt edgy to write about such things.
Transgressive.

But never would I ever post pictures of her little lady parts. Never, ever, ever.

Never.

Our relationships with our loved ones are so personal. They define us, really, even though we pretend our work is more important. I’m guilty of it myself, though if you asked me to give up my creative pursuits, or my kids, it wouldn’t be a choice at all. (Goodbye camera. Goodbye keyboard.)

Just yesterday, while teaching my photo class, a student began to cry as we discussed a picture of her granddaughter. There were two photos in succession, one a sweet, generic, black and white shot of a girl smelling a bouquet of flowers, her eyes closed.

Seen it before. On a greeting card.

The very next image, however, was of the same girl, in color, standing with an arched back, staring daggers into the camera. Her red dress was echoed by the red roses. Other flowers, also in color, surrounded her head like a halo. She was not happy, but we couldn’t know why.

Everyone in class loved the second picture, and tried to explain to the photographer why it was so much better than the first.

Personal. Intimate. Honest. Engaging. Edgy.

The eyes had a story to tell, and we wanted to know more. She began to cry, hurt all over again, reliving the moment where the young girl leaked misery. Her granddaughter had taken her glasses off for the shot, and considered herself hideous. The other kids teased her. (She wanted to cry, so her grandmother, her proxy, did instead.)

We talked about how pictures that surprise us, that give us the unexpected, that walk the line of propriety, are the ones we remember. We compared the first picture to the shot that comes in the frame when you buy it, and the second with the picture you put in the frame once you’ve removed the filler.

I promised my student that the pain she was feeling, the raw emotion, if channelled properly, would lead to photo gold. If she could handle it properly. If she had the courage to look at her life with a penetrating gaze, and then share it with the rest of us.

It’s a big if. Most people shy away from the cliff, when it heads straight down to the Rio Grande river, 650 feet below.

But not Sally Mann.

No sir.

Sally Mann made some pictures back in the 80’s, of her life, of her children, wild and feral, running naked around the Virginia countryside, and we still talk about them to this day.

Hell, I’m talking about them now, having just put down Aperture’s re-issued publication of “Immediate Family,” which I plucked from my photo-eye box a little while ago.

Such. Great. Stuff.

It’s hard to write about something that people know so well. We all feel attached to what we love, even if it’s someone else’s work. (Quick sidebar: two red tailed hawks just screeched over my own country valley, and right now, they’re careening around the sky outside my window.)

Where were we?

These pictures were guaranteed to shock, as they showed off the naked bodies of young children. How could that not draw ire and anger in a predominantly Christian country like America? It had to, right? (Cue the ghost of Jesse Helms nodding slowly.)

But get past the nudity, and you see some striking imagery. The picture of the child’s legs covered with flour paste? Never before have I seen something alive look so dead. I really wish I’d made that picture. Even the crop, chopping off the feet, is genius.

Ramping up the tension, it hurts my viscera just thinking about it.

We see skinned squirrels, dead deer, and children living in a make-believe land of wonder. An imaginary playland that must look like Kiddie Heaven, when seen from above.

The picture of the little child covered in a shroud, as if dead, only reinforces the dark juju running through this world. A touch of “Lord of the Flies” invading Never Neverland.

Really, fantastic stuff.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

Bottom Line: A re-issued classic.

To Purchase “Immediate Family” Visit Photo-Eye

IMG_1762

IMG_1763

IMG_1765

IMG_1766

IMG_1767

IMG_1769

IMG_1770

IMG_1771

IMG_1772

IMG_1773

IMG_1774

IMG_1775

IMG_1776

IMG_1777

IMG_1778

IMG_1780

IMG_1781

IMG_1782

Jonathan Blaustein

Comments are closed.