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.

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
4. “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann” by Richard B. Woodward in New York Times Magazine, September 27, 1992, Section 6, on page 52, 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, 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).

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§ 2 Responses to Two Exhibitions Show Different Sides of Sally Mann

  • sexhysteria says:

    Informative! I wasn’t aware of Sally’s “erotic” images, but I think they should be acceptable because the artist’s intent is not to appeal to prurient interests.

    In my own work there is one image in which my subject, a fully-clothed girl of nine, is holding two plastic cups against her flat chest to mimic breasts. Is that erotic? I don’t think so, and I’ve seen many young girls do similar things.

    A classic is the balloon under the blouse. People who feel “uncomfortable” about any images of a nude child should get some help for themselves.

  • Ron says:

    You did not mention that ‘Perfect Tomato’ is Mann’s favorite image and a happy accident.
    When I first viewed ‘Venus After School’ I got the strong impression of an educated artistic expression and of course Jessie was quite photogenic. I would call it sensuous, but not erotic as it has a kind of “matter of fact” attitude. My vote for erotic is ‘Goosebumps’ which due to Mann’s masterful double- and triple-entendres does suggest a private moment of masturbation (and orgasm).
    Sally is not naive and artists sometimes have to make sound bites to indicate cultural conformity. I seriously doubt that Mann believes that childhood sexuality is an oxymoron. She is an intelligent, educated and imaginative woman.
    She does sometimes come off as a woman obsessed, but the difference between her and someone like Irina Ionesco is she stand back and consults her children about the results and whether to display or publish. In other words, she respects her children.
    Carol Mavor also likes to use the term “erotic” when analyzing Mann’s work, but for the most part, she exaggerates. The impact of her work is due mostly to the shock of experiencing an intimate moment. She should be commended for sharing (as should her children) these precious moments that some of us are never fortunate enough to experience first-hand.

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