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
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.”