I’ve been thinking about Sally Mann a lot these last few days.
While I wouldn't say I'm a devotee of her work, I took notice when her "Immediate Family" images first hit the big time in the early '90s, and for the most part, I thought the controversy surrounding them to be more of a sign of the times rather than an indictment of her as a mother.
Child sex abuse scandals that had rocketed through the news and the collective psyche of Americans in the 80s -- first with the Kern County child abuse cases, in which as many as 60 children testified they had been abused in a ritualistic manner by a pedophilic sex ring; and then with the McMartin Preschool trial, in which hysteria and coaching were also evident in children’s testimony –- were winding down.
A new era in parenting styles -- the obsessive protectionist -- had emerged.
And for some, Sally Mann, with haunting monochrome images of her shirtless, pre-pubescent children staring defiantly into the camera -- frozen in a moment where interpretation runs rampant -- didn't fit the new American order: Letting children be children.
Back then I was only a photographer. Now I am a mother.
I'm still not finding myself drawn to Sally Mann’s work for some reason, but I understand the urge to document the beauty that is often unspoken or considered taboo.
I also have no doubt that she made some huge mistakes, as every mother has. I have been told, for instance, that of her three children, it was her son Emmett who fared the worst with the notoriety his mother's camera brought him. He resented her and he resented being known.
I understand that, too.
Nearly two decades out, her work is still sparking venom from people who believe she is a monster. A recent entry in Head Waiter (that I cannot find to reference here, I’m sorry to say) did just that.
But as I was reading that piece, I couldn't help but think of all the things we, as humans, must decide. We must decide about our work, our children’s upbringing, their health, our own well being. We say that children are all important, but aren't we only then teaching them that no one else matters?
That once you have children your lives, your livelihood and your joy (not directly related to them) is over? What about posterity? What about the future?
Life continues for generations, and its impact in art is not only about a single family, it's also about the questions we raise for the society at large, perhaps ad infinitum.
There are many decisions I (and my husband, too) will have to make with respect to our children. We will have to decide personal things about their health care: will they get immunizations? Will our boy be circumcised? We will make decisions that impact their education and social demographic: Will they go to public schools? When will they be allowed to date?
And yes. Their pictures – some of which are beautifully unclothed -- could potentially be all over the universe by they time they give me the glare-y eyeball and tell me (and my camera) to go fug ourselves. Of course these likeness won't necessarily be collected by any famous institutions, but they will be out there. It's what I do. It's part of who I am.
We will make mistakes. We will do the right thing. They may disagree.
We will have to handle it as a family. Not a perfect family, but a family they were born into.