In 1992, when photographer Sally Mann published naked photographs of her children in her book Immediate Family, she wasn’t expecting the wave of controversy it sparked. Now, in The New York Times Magazine, Mann opens up about what it was like to be exposed to public scrutiny both as a photographer and as a mother.
Even as the book was selling out, Mann was overwhelmed with responses from skeptics, critics, and concerned viewers. The world wasn’t questioning whether her photographs were good or bad; they were questioning whether or not Mann was a good mother.
“For all the righteous concern people expressed about the welfare of my children,” Mann writes, “what most of them failed to understand was that taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering … I was a photographer and they were actors, and we were making a photograph together.”
Some questioned her right to photograph everyday moments of her children, capturing images of them naked or injured. The headline for one article in The San Diego Tribune read “It May Be Art, but What About the Kids?”
So, what about her kids?
It seems they handled being photographed well. Mann recalls that at age 9 or 10, her daughter Jessie changed out of a shirt that exposed her bare chest before going to a gallery opening. When someone asked why she would cover up when nude photos of her would be on display, Jessie replied, “Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.”
Photographs depicting children, especially naked children, are often met with concerns about pedophilia. But, Mann writes that she saw her children instead through the eyes of both mother and artist.
“I celebrated the maternal passion their bodies inspired in me … I never thought of them as being sexual; I thought of them as being simply, miraculously and sensuously beautiful.”
She also notes that the media weren’t holding other kinds of imagery under the same scrutinizing microscope.
“Once the work was out in the world, I was puzzled as to why that sensuous beauty should be signposted as controversial, while magazine pages were filled with prurient images of young girls, all aimed at selling commercial products. ”
Mann admits that she sometimes feared for her children’s safety. When she became aware that one man had taken an alarmingly inappropriate interest in photos of her children, she remembers being frightened.
“For years, I was sleepless with fears of Lindbergh-baby-like abductions and made sure that the windows were locked, that the house was always occupied, that the children were accompanied by an adult.”
With her children now grown, Mann’s fears were never realized. Her photographs have become an important part of photo history, and continue to inspire. They depict life as she and her family were living it.
Read “Sally Mann’s Exposure” in the New York Times Magazine, where Mann also discusses her relationship with her husband and her thoughts on privacy.
Immediate Family was recently reissued by Aperture Foundation.