Visual Culture

Why Sally Mann’s Photographs of Her Children Can Still Make Viewers Uncomfortable

Alina Cohen
Jan 4, 2018 4:28PM

In the early 1990s, photographer Sally Mann transformed one of the most banal elements of family life—the sentimental photo album—into discomfiting, divisive, and ultimately unforgettable artwork. For her series “Immediate Family,” she shot her three children (Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia) in vulnerable positions at their summer home in rural Virginia. The ensuing criticism the images received questioned the line between pornography and fine art and problematized the objectification of children.

This past December, elements of this debate again came to the fore after an online petition ordered the Metropolitan Museum of Art to either take down or newly contextualize the 1938 painting, Thérèse Dreaming, by the French artist known as Balthus. The older, male artist had portrayed a pre-teen girl sitting with a raised knee, revealing her underwear underneath a red skirt. (The museum declined to comply with the demands.) That controversy follows a long year of protests targeting art institutions and specific works, from Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) at the Whitney Biennial to Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012) at the Walker Art Center. Each of these fights hinged on the discrepancies in power between artist and subject. As artists of all disciplines grapple with the ever-evolving ethics of representing others, what can we learn from the scandal surrounding Mann’s “Immediate Family” photographs, a major touchstone of the 1990s culture wars?

Despite how the media has portrayed her, Mann views herself less as a portraitist and provocateur than as a documenter of place—specifically, the American South. Many of her photographs pay homage to her family farm in Lexington, Virginia. Mann was born Sally Munger in the small town in 1951. She first studied photography at the Putney School in Vermont, where she attended high school. During her two years at Bennington College, she met her husband, Larry Mann. She completed her undergraduate work back in Virginia, at Hollins College, in 1974, where she also received an MA in writing the following year. Her passion for narrative found another outlet when she published her memoir, the National Book Award finalist Hold Still, in 2015.


This March, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. will open “Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings,” an exhibition of around 115 photographs culled from Mann’s over 40-year career. The southern landscape plays a starring role, whether the photographs are of Civil War battlefields or Mann’s children. A deep sense of drama derives from shadows and light on historically fraught land. “Despite her great talent and prominence...the full range of her work had not yet received sufficient and widespread critical and scholarly attention,” says exhibition curator Sarah Greenough.

This survey will doubtlessly broaden the knowledge of Mann’s career beyond her most indelible, and controversial, series. But the photographs in “Immediate Family” remain worth exploring in their own right.

Mann began photographing her children as soon as they were born. “For years I shot the underappreciated and extraordinary domestic scenes of any mother’s life with the point-and-shoot,” she recalls in Hold Still. “But it wasn’t really until 1985 that I put on my photography eyes, and began to see the potential for serious imagery within the family.” She considers her first “good family picture” to be a shot of Jessie’s face swollen from insect bites. Immediately, the darker side of childhood, as opposed to more pristine and tired visions of innocence, attracted her. She describes her family photographs as a superstitious means of warding off real harm to her family.

Many of the subsequent images that eventually formed the “Immediate Family” series featured her children on the family farm—in the nude, injured, or in other vulnerable positions. Emmett’s bloody nose, Virginia’s wet bed, and Jessie’s naked dance on a table all became aesthetic fodder through their mother’s lens. In the pictures, their ages range from around one to twelve years old. Mann debuted the series at New York’s Houk Friedman Gallery (now Edwynn Houk Gallery) in the spring of 1992. Later that year, she published the images in a photo book of the same title.

Within three months, the book sold out its printing of 10,000 copies. Mann’s children became ever more visible. While they enjoyed being photographed at the time, there was no telling how their opinions of the experience would develop. Mann recalls taking her children to a psychologist to assess the impact her series was having on them; he thought they were just fine.

In September 1992, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story by arts critic Richard B. Woodward entitled “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann.” The piece wasn’t overtly critical, but honed in on the children’s sexuality and raised ideas about child abuse and incest that seemed deliberately designed to spark controversy. Mann later complained that Woodward had taken her words out of context. Letters to the editor ranged from pleas to consider how Mann’s actions were affecting her children’s sexuality, to applause for Mann’s novel and striking depictions of intense maternal love.

The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed in February 1991 by food writer Raymond Sokolov critiquing Mann’s work. The paper accompanied it with a nude image of Virginia that had run on the cover of Aperture Magazine in 1990. Here, however, they censored the photograph by placing black bars over her eyes, nipples, and vagina. “It felt like a mutilation, not only of the image but also of Virginia herself and of her innocence,” writes Mann. She argues that the censorship, not the picture itself, gave the image a tinge of pornography.

Defending her work, Mann stresses the dramatic nature of the photographs and their separation from reality. “These are not my children; they are figures on a silvery paper slivered out of time,” she wrote over two decades later. “I believe my morality should have no bearing on the discussion of the pictures I made.” She cites Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Paul Gauguin as artists whose works shouldn’t be disregarded due to their less-than-angelic lives. (If Mann could dismiss the articles and the letters, more frightening was the stalker her work attracted. One man wrote to the children’s school—in addition to editors and  journalists—asking for more information about them. Both Mann and at least one of her children suffered sleepless nights in fear of their own safety.)

I asked National Gallery curator Greenough about the connection between a series like “Immediate Family” and more recent backlash against, say, the work of Balthus. “I think that it’s fascinating the way culture seems to be going in cycles,” she noted. “When we began [planning our exhibition] in 2014, it did seem as if most of the moral panic over the depiction of child nudity had receded and that ‘Immediate Family’ really had been widely embraced as one of the most consistently affecting and revelatory photographic explorations of childhood that had ever been published.”

Sally Mann
Dog Scratches, 1991
Edwynn Houk Gallery

The timing of Mann’s initial unveiling of “Immediate Family” situated her work within larger discussions about morality in photography. In 1989, U.S. senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms railed against artist Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph Immersion (Piss Christ), which depicts a plastic figurine of Jesus on a crucifix submerged in Serrano’s urine. The artist had indirectly received partial funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to exhibit the work, and the senators wanted to prevent similarly “obscene” art from receiving government money. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. subsequently cancelled an exhibition of sexually explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, which had also received NEA funds. In 1990, the director of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, Dennis Barrie, went to trial for obscenity after the museum displayed Mapplethorpe’s portraits of semi-nude children and BDSM practices. (He was acquitted later that year.)

The same year, the F.B.I. confiscated Jock Sturges’s equipment and prints of nude women and children who had consented to model for him. Sturges, they said, may be guilty of criminal violations of child-pornography statutes, but the U.S. Grand Jury decided not to indict him after a 17-month investigation. Mann worked under a similar threat, though the government never took action against her.

Interestingly, the uproar over “Immediate Family” represents one of the few cases where both the political right and left have united to condemn an artist. Feminist writer Mary Gordon attacked Mann for unnecessarily sexualizing her daughter, while charges of pornography emanated from conservative circles. In her defense, Mann invoked Oscar Wilde who, she writes, asserted “that the hypocritical, prudish, and philistine English public, when unable to find the art in a work of art, instead looked for the man in it.” Wilde died in 1900. Over a hundred years later, we’re still debating—albeit with more nuanced ideas about how power functions—whether artists’ foibles and oversights render their work unfit for exhibition halls, publications, and screens big and small.

Alina Cohen