Essay: Sally Mann’s “Immediate Family”

This is an essay that I have written for a college project.

During the early 1990s, Sally Mann, a relatively unknown photographer at the time, sparked controversy when she debuted her photographic series “Immediate Family” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The series documents her three children, Emmet, Virginia and Jessie, growing up at their rural family home in Virginia. Shot over a period of ten years on a 10×8 large format camera, the images are undoubtedly beautiful, and we see every detail of how the children spent their early years amongst the trees and in the rivers of their home.

The children of the Mann family seem completely at one with nature: in the majority of the images within the series they are photographed without clothing, feral, wild and free, happy to play with one another and with the animals, never afraid of the mud and the dirt and everything that goes with a life spent in the great outdoors. Mann as a mother looks through the lens at every tiny detail of her childrenʼs lives: “Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things every mother has seen – a wet bed, a bloody nose, candy cigarettes. They dress up, they pout, they posture, they paint their bodies, and they dive like otters in the river.” She shares these moments with us the audience in these magnificent images – although the scenes are posed for by Mannʼs subjects (you are never going to achieve a snapshot using a 10×8 large format camera), the children have a voice, and the images that we see are extremely real and intimate.

You cannot deny that the series has received criticism in abundance, and it was one that caused much debate during its debut. Many of the images are dreamy and show wonderfully playful scenes; others are more surreal: black eyes, dead fawns, head injuries, a child pretending to have been attacked by an alligator in the river, a body splattered with the juice of a lolly ice (when first viewed the liquid has a disturbing resemblance to blood). Mann seems to be quite comfortable around the subject of death, and her more recent series “What Remains” explores it in more depth. “Flour Paste” is an image of one of her childrenʼs legs, caked in mud from a day of playing, yet may be seen as disturbing to look at as the dried mud looks almost like rotting dried flesh. “Emmet Afloat” shows the only male of the family floating, arms sprawled out beneath the shallows of a river bank, looking almost like a drowned body. Perhaps most intriguing is the image entitled “Hayhook” in which the eldest sibling, Jessie, hangs from a hook suspended from the patio ceiling, the sunlight making her bony body appear ghostly white. The children too seem to be accepting of death, at least in the sense that they do not run from it, they are not freaked out by it: Jessie poses, a silly smile on her face, wearing a tutu, standing next to a baby stag that hangs from the boot of a car, its neck clearly sliced and its lifeless head lolling towards the floor.

“It’s not morbid, it’s just this awareness of the antithetical aspect of every situation,” Mann explains that there is happy and sad throughout the childhood of every person, and she wants to bear all to us. Death looms over the children in these images, despite all the happy memories depicted. Death has a presence in much of Mannʼs work, and she seems to do this almost as a way to come to terms with everythingʼs inevitable death herself.

“Flour Paste”, Sally Mann, 1987

“He is Very Sick” shows Emmet and Virginia visiting their father, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, in hospital. Itʼs a moment where they are both clearly upset, a very intimate family moment in which everybody is suffering and is scared. As a viewer we feel almost intrusive, as though it should be kept private between the family members. Images such as “The Wet Bed” and “Goodnight Kiss” give a similar sense of unease, and many people would consider Mann to be showcasing too much of her childrenʼs private lives in order to make the images. But as Mann has said, these are things that every mother has seen, these are the moments that make up our childhood and help us to grow into adults, and are important in our lives, and every single person can relate to them.

“He Is Very Sick”, Sally Mann, 1986

Most significant in the arguments against these images is that Mann is sexualising her own children by photographing them nude. Many said that making profits on these images of her children is immoral, as they may be viewed in the wrong context, and that the bodies of the innocent children should not be so explicitly put on display. But this is all that Sally knew as a child herself, growing up amongst an eccentric family, a feral naked child herself. These children have no problem with their own bodies, and live their childhood without fear, able to play freely in their own home amongst nature. Sally Mann is not lying to us, she is giving a very real depiction of exactly what it is like for her children to grow up and all the adventures that they have along the way, showing the beauty of childhood in all its messy glory.

In conclusion, my opinion is that Mann has managed to use the camera in order to take every aspect of childhood – the laughter, the tears, the bumps and the scrapes, the illness, the dirt, the playfulness – and turn it all into a beautiful and true depiction of childhood. She has a wonderful ability that not many have, which is to take moments, which may be ugly or disturbing, and create great beauty with them. Almost every family documents their children growing up: mine certainly does, and many photographs of myself as a child are posed for. But they are all such wonderfully happy memories: holidays, birthday parties, day trips, me playing with my cat or with my little sister and cousins. The very fact that Mann has documented every single thing shows the love that she has for her children, the beauty that she finds in childhood and her eye as a photographer and artist for what will both shock and delight us.