Sally Mann: Body of work

Images offer a sense of a woman, at Jackson Fine Art

In the late 1980s, Sally Mann endured a stint as one of America's most notorious photographers for her body of work Immediate Family. That work centered on Mann's gorgeous, often au naturel trio of children – Emmett, Jessie and Virginia – captured cavorting on Mann's ancestral Virginia land. The images provoked the ire of America's self-appointed moralists and threatened to drown Mann's work in controversy. As has often been the case, what Americans were happy to accept in entertainment – sex and death – they became prudish, tiresome and prim about in art.

It is therefore a useful exercise for those interested in separating out Mann's work from the attendant fog of scandal to also consider Mann's 1988 book, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (Aperture), which illuminates so many of her themes to come.

At Twelve cemented Mann's interest in the fleeting magic of childhood and the sensuality of children spiritually linked to the natural world. In these heartfelt black-and-white photographs, currently on view at Jackson Fine Art, Mann documents a variety of young girls in her Lexington, Va., hometown – black and white, rich and poor, poised and vulnerable. They can look like little girls, still clutching baby dolls, and precocious sirens occasionally aware of their beguiling properties. The photographs feature haughty cowgirl princesses wearing monogrammed shirts and chubby living baby dolls who are fussed and fretted over by their hovering mamas.

The photographs are often blatantly sexual, for honing in on the girls' bodies. But they also register their complicated interior states. The traces of doubt, confidence, vanity, insecurity, pride and anxiety on their faces complicate any simple reduction of their beings to sex.

If anything, looking at the images some 20 years later proves that when it comes to girls and sex, we still don't have a clue.

Mann's documentation of girls on the cusp of womanhood might not rate a quickened pulse amid the fire crotches and sex tapes of today. But they still challenge our cultural standard of drawing a definitive line between innocent girl and sexually aware woman. Mann's images assert that such lines separating human sexuality from human experience are artificial.

What the young girls in At Twelve and Mann's own children in Immediate Family suggest is a mix of innocence and awareness about the effect they want to produce. They are Mann's collaborators and, occasionally, provocateurs. As a woman, Mann clearly identifies with them, even as her impulse as a photographer is to turn up the volume on certain sexual and symbolic markers: wedding veils and bridges, phallic soda bottles and blood stains. But it's the quality of knowingness that turns the images electric, that transforms them from ordinary portraits into hothouse, sensual, idiosyncratic portals to the sentience beneath the skin.

That knowingness separates the 12-year-old girls in Mann's images from the blank, empty vessels captured by Jock Sturges, a photographer also notorious for his sexually charged portraits of the young and beautiful. Sturges treats his nymphs like statuary, while Mann clearly identifies with her subjects. She is a watchful mother, recording the awkward, devastating, sorrowful transition from child to woman. But she is also a grown woman looking back and respecting the same precipice she once walked.

That knowingness can be devastating, too. In one photo, a girl poses looking tough and sure of herself with a baby-faced, fully grown man. There is an uncomfortable sexual dynamic between them. Mann noted in the book At Twelve that the man was eventually shot in the face by the girl's mother for "harassing" her daughter. So Mann has also captured the scene of a crime, and the painful reality that even what we can mistake for sexual bravado or provocation could all be a put-on.

At Twelve is shown side by side with Mann's more recent portraits using the antiquated 19th-century collodion process, of her three nearly grown children.

The collodion process emphasizes imperfections, scratches, blurs and happy accidents so the images themselves take on a time-weathered look. Rather than focusing on her children's bodies within a verdant, living landscape, these images privilege their faces honed in on to an almost uncomfortable degree, as if studied under a microscope. Jessie, Emmett and Virginia pose with eyes open or closed and their faces become vast, moody landscapes. The images most immediately resemble postmortem photos. And the flickers and flares, streaks and scratches become metaphors for death and decay. Just as the At Twelve images anticipate adulthood, the What Remains images anticipate the grave.

Seen in conjunction with What Remains, the young girls in At Twelve represent a death of sorts, even as they bloom and unfold with magnificent life. Because with change, Mann asserts, comes death. It is the death of the child within them, pushed aside so the woman can emerge.

For more images by Sally Mann, click here.

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