Two Exhibitions Show Different Sides of Sally Mann

January 16, 2012 § 2 Comments

Sally Mann’s Perfect Tomato was one of the photos shown in the exhibition Intimacies held September 9 through October 22, 2011 at Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago [note 1]. Shot in black-and-white in 1990 in Virginia, it’s an example of a completely innocent photo of a naked little girl: Sally’s daughter Jessie. She was born in 1981 so she was either 8 or 9 at the time the photo was shot. Her arms are outstretched and she’s tiptoeing on a table with some tomatoes on it. Her flat chest and hairless pubic area are visible from the side. The bright light of the right side of the photo contrasts with the darkness to the left.

The exhibition didn’t focus on children, but other youths were depicted on some of the other photos.

There is a clear contrast between the innocence of Perfect Tomato and the eroticism of Venus After School, the Sally Mann photo displayed in the exhibition The Female Gaze: Women Look At Women at Cheim & Read in New York City from June 25, 2009 to September 19, 2009. Venus After School shows Jessie two years later, in 1992, but her naked body was still prepubescent at that time and the photo is likewise in black-and-white. She’s reclining on a couch while she looks at the camera and her left hand is at her pubic area.

The photo is a modern photographic representation of three oil paintings: Sleeping Venus by Giorgione from 1510 (the original inspiration), The Venus of Urbino by Titian from 1538, and Olympia by Manet (1863). Jessie’s hand is positioned more like Venus’s than Olympia’s. The paintings are widely acknowledged to be erotic in nature and possibly suggestive of masturbation, and Olympia’s status was depicted as being that of a prostitute.

The Female Gaze on the whole was quite a bit more erotic than Intimacies, the former containing paintings, sculptures, and photos by other artists, some of which show older people nude, kissing, masturbating, and even having sexual intercourse.

Susan Edwards, a professor at the University of Buckingham, gave Venus After School as an example of a work that “straddled the boundaries of what is currently considered the threshold of child pornography” [note 2].

In my opinion, Professor Amy Adler was correct to ask on the New York University course outline for the Art Law course she taught in Fall 2006, as Part One: Art and the 1st Amendment [note 3]:

“Is Sally Mann’s work child pornography?
Apply Dost factors to “Venus After School”
Photo of Jessie lying naked on a couch, reminiscent of art poses
Self-conscious allusion to Manet’s Olympia, which itself alluded to Titian’s Venus of Urbino – so clearly working in an art history tradition
(1) Jessie’s hand is drawing the viewer to her genitals – so arguably the focal point
Her genitals aren’t discernible though
Knox court said you can has [sic: have] a lascivious exhibition of genitals even if they aren’t visible
(2) Jessie is lying on a couch / day bed – so could be usually associated with sexual activity
But also a fairly common place to find a child
(3) She is reclining – but maybe not an unnatural pose in that growing up as a girl is about taking on a series of “unnatural poses””

Adler goes on to discuss whether it was made to provoke thoughts of sexual desire in the people looking at Jessie (even though Sally insisted she doesn’t want to do that: “I don’t think of my children, and I don’t think anyone else should think of them, with any sexual thoughts.” [note 4]). Adler described the paintings on which it was based as “sexual artworks (that were regarded as a sort of porn in their own time)”.

Adler’s conclusion is “Based on Dost, Mann’s work would probably be considered child porn (in the absence of an exception for serious artistic value)” and “the only reason Mann isn’t in jail is prosecutorial discretion”.

Sally once said, “I think childhood sexuality is an oxymoron.” [note 4] But some sexuality researchers and art critics say it’s something very real. Malcolm Jones Jr. was one of them, writing:

“It’s the same in the many pictures where the children are nude. They are disturbing images, and they are meant to be. With their waif-white skin against chiaroscuro shadows, the children look Victorian—but their eyes say something else. They know, and they know we know, that they’re sexual creatures.” [note 5]

If they are sexual creatures (to a degree, anyway), should the law allow photos of them masturbating (or seeming to) to be made, and do their photos belong in an exhibition like The Female Gaze where imaginary adults have sex?

If prepubescent children were allowed to be portrayed masturbating, up to and including the level of explicitness seen with a girl in Will McBride’s book Show Me! and a boy in Edgard Navarro’s film Eu Me Lembro, that would put power back in the hands of the child and the photographer, wresting it away from judges and juries who don’t know the child on a personal basis. As Jones wrote, Sally’s kids had free will and knowingly posed for the camera:

“People upset over these pictures have accused Mann of exploiting her own children. But in the photographs, it is clear the children aren’t puppets; Mann captures their gumption and independence.” [note 5]

Also, not all photos that Sally shot got released to the public. Little Virginia was photographed urinating before she was 8 but she asked Sally not to publish that photo in Immediate Family so she didn’t [note 4]. That must mean that gallery visitors see Virginia’s older sister posing like Venus only because she wants them to.

Innocent and erotic: these are the two sides of Sally Mann’s works. For someone who purported to portray her children innocently without reference to sexuality, the photograph Venus After School doesn’t fit into that pattern.

Notes
1. http://gallery400.uic.edu/exhibitions/intimacies/related_pages/exhibition-checklist
2. “Discourses of Denial and Moral Panics: The Pornographisation of the Child in Art, the Written Word, Film and Photograph” by Susan Edwards in Behaving Badly: Social Panic and Moral Outrage – Victorian and Modern Parallels edited by Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson (Ashgate, 2003), page 185.
3. The outline is in a document housed at http://www.law.nyu.edu
4. “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann” by Richard B. Woodward in New York Times Magazine, September 27, 1992, Section 6, on page 52, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/27/magazine/the-disturbing-photography-of-sally-mann.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm Woodward also noted that Sally was herself a nude child model. Sally’s father, Robert Munger, was her photographer. She wasn’t that thrilled with the results of her father’s work, however, and must be happy that none of the photos are out there for public consumption. Different kids can make different choices about who they want to show their photos to and in what contexts.
5. “All in the Family” by Malcolm Jones Jr. in Newsweek, October 26, 1992, on page 61, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/1992/10/26/all-in-the-family.html The print edition of the article begins with a photograph of Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia Mann all standing shirtless, and Virginia’s flat chest and nipples can be seen. The caption calls them “Defiantly self-assured children” (page 60).

Dafne Fernandez’s Pubic Close-Up

July 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

One of the most controversial kinds of depictions of nude children is the pubic area close-up. This is only rarely encountered in the mainstream arts.

Sally Mann is an American photographer whose book Immediate Family sparked controversy for its black-and-white photos of her own kids in the nude. Photos from this series, including some not included in the book, have been shown in art galleries. From November 29, 2007 to January 12, 2008 the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York City showed a Sally Mann photo titled “Equivalent #2, Possum Tail” which she shot in 1985 and it’s still displayed at their website houkgallery.com. One print out of the 25 made is currently for sale from the Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, Washington for the exhorbitant price of 4,500 U.S. dollars(!). The photo shows her unclothed little daughter lying flat on her back while the possum tail rests on her stomach and her prepubescent genital cleft is in the middle of the image. Her body was only photographed from the area from her stomach to her upper legs. On either side of her body there’s only darkness. One cannot help but notice her pubic area.

The Spanish actress Dafne Fernández, whose birthdate is March 31, 1985, has a scene in the Spanish film Resultado Final that similarly pushes the limits of acceptability. Released in 1998, it was reportedly filmed in 1997, so Fernández was only 11 or 12 at the time, and her body has typical features of a prepubescent of that age including her proportions, her hairlessness around her crotch, and her flat chest. Most of the film shows her character, María José, at older ages. Fernández is given only about a minute and a half of screen time to illustrate Maria’s childhood days, yet packed into that brief time she is given a topless scene where she’s clad only in panties as well as a bath scene that has a moment where she stands displaying her bare, wet body at close range – only from the upper half of her upper legs to some of the skin immediately north of her pubic mound but without her belly button in the frame. Her genital cleft is one of the few things that can be seen at that time. Once again, it’s as if the viewer is being asked to notice a child’s pubic area. Why would a director and camera operator do that?

Incidentally, Resultado Final also includes two heterosexual sex scenes showing Maria as an adult woman, so this isn’t entirely a non-sexual film.

In a previous blog entry I discussed a scene in the Brazilian film Eu Me Lembro that zooms in on an 11-year-old boy’s erect penis. Unlike the two examples above, Eu Me Lembro depicts a child’s genitals for an overtly sexual reason – as part of a masturbation scene.

For various reasons, the emphasis on the vulva or penis of a child is considered harmful by making the child into a sexual object. It’s certainly depersonalizing to an extent as the child’s face is not visible in this kind of shot. But when the exact same body part is exposed when the child’s full figure is visible somehow the image is considered less vulgar. How big a deal should a close-up really be considered?

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