The audacity and authority of Sally Mann’s work are perhaps nowhere so immediately manifest as on the cover of her first collection of photographs, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988). The cover picture is a sort of double portrait: a girl stands in front of a clapboard house next to a chair on which a torn, oval photograph of another girl, from another time, has been propped. The girl in the old photograph wears a flounced dress and a bow in her hair, and has the stern, fixed, mildly sulky expression that nineteenth-century photographers regularly induced in young subjects; her hands are stiffly, self-protectively crossed over her stomach. The “actual” girl, in contrast, opens herself up to the photographer’s scrutiny. Dressed in tight shorts and a T-shirt, she stands in an attitude of trusting relaxation, her legs parted, a hip outthrust, an arm extended to grip the chair holding the torn photograph. We do not see her expression—Mann has cropped the photograph at her chest and her knees—but we don’t need to, because the body is so eloquent. Its transfixing feature—you could almost call it its “face”—is the girl’s vulva, which plumply strains against the soft stretch fabric of the shorts, creating a radius of creases that impart a sculptural, almost monumental presence to this evocative, slightly embarrassing, slightly arousing sight of summer in America.
The photograph is radical, however, not because of the truth it renders about twelve-year-old-ness but because of the truth it renders about photography. As if anticipating the criticism that Immediate Family, her next book of photographs, was to attract—the charge that she exploits her young subjects—Mann offers an illustration of the medium’s innate exploitativeness that is like an impatient manifesto. Of course the girl who posed for Mann in front of her house did not know—everything in the stance of her body tells us she did not—that Mann was taking a picture centering on her pudendum. We can almost see the girl’s face squinting against the sun, arranging itself to levelly meet the camera’s gaze, the gaze that has treacherously traveled elsewhere. The photograph both unrepentantly enacts and ruefully comments on the treachery. Mann knows, as the major photographers of our time know (the photographers whose company she joins with Immediate Family) that photography is a medium not of reassuring realism but of disturbing surrealism.
In Immediate Family Mann photographs her own three children, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, during warm weather over a period of seven years, in and around the family house in rural southwestern Virginia. The children wear bathing suits or light summer clothes or no clothes. The photographs are beautiful and strange, like a dream of childhood in summer. They are not your usual pictures of the children to send to the grandparents; they are pictures to send to the Museum of Modern Art. During John Szarkowski’s tenure as director of the photography department at the Modern, he cultivated a kind of photography that Sally Mann brings to triumphant, sometimes…
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