By photographing her children, Sally Mann puts society in the face of taboos


We are in 1992. It's been seven years since the American Sally Mann photographed her children in her summer cottage in Virginia. A heavenly place and out of the world: surrounded by nature, without clock, running water or electricity. An ideal holiday destination … With a look so tender but lucid, the young mother captures these moments of precious intimacy, giving them a divine and theatrical power. An unreal light drowns and sculpts the angelic and frail bodies of his offspring.

Confusion between fiction and reality

This year 1992, the artist finally decides to share these clichés. A series titled "Immediate Family" which brings together a selection made by the artist and published in a book of the same name. These images are currently on display at the Jeu de Paume.

The photographs are not idyllic despite their natural setting. There reigns an agonizing and sometimes gloomy atmosphere. A threat weighs on the landscapes and the protagonists. When they do not smile and bask, the children -Emmet, Jessie and Virginia- are injured, nued or adopt ambiguous adult poses, distress poses or martyrdom. Damaged Child (1984), the introductory image of Sally Mann's book, shows the bloated face of her daughter Jessie, who suffered from insect bites. Sure Emmett Floating at Camp (1991), the body of his son Emmett floats on the surface of the water and does not fail to evoke a corpse … Elsewhere, it is seen naked, the lower body stained by a dark texture.

Far from satisfying her sadistic impulses, Sally Mann photographs everyday events that her photographer's eye transfigures. She explores her mother's fears, the anguish that her children are in danger, die or grow up too fast. On the sublime picture The Last Light (1990) for example, an adult hand takes the pulse of his daughter as if it would escape him.

In the book Immediate Familily, Sally Mann describes her shots as "Fiction", images "Fantastic" or bearing "Most of the ordinary things that every mother had before her eyes: a wet bed, a bleeding nose, sugar cigarettes." Aware of the disturbances they could cause, the photographer first plans to wait for her children to be adults to broadcast. In the catalog of the exhibition, Sarah Kennel, one of the curators tells: "By learning it, his children (…) ask him to reconsider his decision. After consulting a psychologist who ensures Mann and Larry (her husband) that Emmett and Jessie are well integrated and fully aware of the implications of a publication (…) Mann decides to publish. "

But now, the artist is immediately accused of mistreating her children. A reaction highlighting the common confusion between fiction and reality in art … The photographer will explain that "These shots had nothing to do with my work as a mother and that children perceived this difference."

Hide this nudity …

In the New York Times Magazine, art critic Richard Woodward unambiguously states that images are for him "A source of personal concern". Such an approach would be representative of the sacrifice that the photographer makes of her children on the altar of her artistic ego. Sally Mann would benefit from her special relationship, her dominant position and the weakness of her children. The artist-model relationship is always the game of power dynamics.

In this particular case, were not the children too young to agree? In any case, none will call into question the work of their mother when they become of age. Today, many parents share pictures of their children on the networks ( "Sharenting"). It is also legally possible to demand a withdrawal of clichés, the right to the image applying to the field of art. The case of Eva Ionesco is a typical example, although the latter has sued her mother for taking artistic photographs of her between her 4 and 12 years, naked, in very explicit positions.

Not surprisingly, the artist will be censored.

More than a questioning of parental authority, the nodal point of tension with regard to "Immediate Family" remains childish nudity. Sally Mann explored the disinhibition of her children with regard to their bodies but also the awakening of their sexuality and their latent desires. The Modest Child (1988) frames her daughter who covers her chest with her hands as if to suggest the future emergence of her breasts.

Not surprisingly, the artist will be censored. The bible of contemporary art, Artforum, refuses to publish the image -dérangeante, certainly, but it is necessary to ban the art as soon as it shocks certain? Es – on which the naked body and white as snow of her daughter hanging on a hook. The picture Virginia at Four (1989) – which is nothing obscene – on which his daughter poses naked against the goal made the cover of Aperture in 1990 and will be denounced as "pornographic" and blurred by the Wall Street Journal.

From art to porn, the challenge of a definition

Can we broadcast photos of naked children without falling into pornography? By answering in the negative, it is considered that a stereotype of bare prepubescent is necessarily child pornography, that it would be intended to arouse a masturbatory desire, enclosing it in a one-way system. As Polly Toynbee points out in the Guardian, "The current obsession with the sex of children forces everyone to see with pedophile eyes".

The legislation concerning pornographic representations hardened internationally in the 1990s. Good. However the blur remains: how to know if an image arouses or not lascivious interests? How to judge whether it is a work of art or not? This situation gives rise to many abuses when one confuses nudity with pornography.

Today, it is not uncommon for virtuous leagues to demand the confiscation of photographs of children, even dressed and represented in painting.

In 2007, a photo of Nan Goldin (where two children are dancing) is seized by the British police at the Gateshead Center for Contemporary Art. It does not fall under the law of child pornography. Everyone to judge. Although Sally Mann's photographs are thirty years old, they still resonate today, not only because of their formal qualities but also because of their avant-gardism.

The series continues to disturb because it throws into oblivion this sentimentalist and idealized vision of childhood, an innocent period supposed to be exempt from any libido and all darkness. On the clichés of the American, the lips are enhanced with lipstick, children adorn themselves with necklaces, marry attitudes traditionally attributed to their elders. Their eyes are imbued with a thousand intertwined emotions: Emmett, Jessie and Virginia express alternately pride, provocation, mistrust, clairvoyance. In short, they are as complex and mysterious as adults.

"I felt it was time to retire."

Sally Mann, photographer, in 1997

Sally Mann's proposal is political. It is in line with the pedagogies of childhood that emerged in the 1960s: it proposes an alternative representation to the dogma according to which the child would be an inferior adult, a puppet or a human material to model.

After the scandals provoked by her series, the photographer decides to"Abandon family photography", partly for "Escape the unexpected controversy and fame". "I felt it was time to retire," she said in 1997. "When we work together, our bond has no kind of elasticity. Moving on to something else is a way of freeing them to be themselves. " Self-censorship?

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