the web site of Austin-based writer Eileen Mcginnis.

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a blog about caregivers + creators throughout history.

 

Exposures: Photographer Sally Mann and the Dangerous Art of Motherhood

I.

When Canto Three of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ‘dropped’ in 1816, it began and ended with verses that would put the name of Lord Byron’s infant daughter on the lips of every poetry-reading Brit:

Is thy face like thy mother’s my fair child!

Ada! Sole daughter of my house and heart?

Ada Byron, later Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, could never quite shake these tender, wistful lines penned by a father she never knew. They followed her around like a faithful puppy-dog—were quoted in her marriage notice to William King, served as the epigraph of (future prime minister) Benjamin Disraeli’s ripped-from-the-headlines novel about the Byrons. They even trailed her into the afterlife, surfacing in many of her obituaries.

Byron’s lines bestowed a certain cache upon Ada, piqued the public’s curiosity. As London Examiner editor Albany Fonblanque put it at the time: “Who has not felt an interest in the only child of Byron, the Ada whose name is so caressed in his verse…?”

Ada Byron at age four.

Ada Byron at age four.

The daughter of the first modern celebrity had become, through the poetry of her overexposed father, the first child star.

Byron poeticized about his estranged daughter Ada, ruing their separation while professing his undying love (“I see thee not, —I hear thee not, —but none / Can be so wrapt in thee…”). Whatever reservations the British public had about Byron himself, about his infamous lifestyle or his overplayed lyrics, they forgave him this sentimental display of paternal feeling. In fact, they ate it up.  

And the kid—a talented, ambitious mathematician who would grasp the potential of the computer, 100 years before its modern invention—was alright.



II.

Recent think pieces about the rise of “mommy bloggers”* have questioned whether, in fact, the kids are alright.

The kids they are fretting over are not, admittedly, the offspring of notorious Romantic poets. They are referring instead to the children of professional writers, bloggers like yours truly, and social-media “influencers”—pretty much anyone who has discussed or documented their parenthood online. They telegraph an anxiety that parents, whether to express themselves, win “likes” on social media, or make a quick buck, are violating their children’s privacy.

Take, for example, this Slate article about the writer Christie Tate, which MomRage dissected on a recent podcast. The author castigates Tate for continuing to write about motherhood despite her 9-year-old daughter’s initial embarrassment at finding photos of herself online:

In her essay-length defense of her decision to keep writing about parenting—that is, about her daughter’s life—Tate attempts to give this kind of callousness a feminist gloss. 

(Note how the sentence above casually conflates “parenting” and “her daughter’s life,” as if there is nothing more to parenthood than the child’s perspective.)

Clicking back to Tate’s original piece in The Washington Post, I found a more complicated story. Tate was willing to consider her daughter’s feedback on what to keep private; she just didn’t want to give up writing about motherhood entirely. Slate sees Tate’s desire to hold something back for herself, despite her daughter’s objections, as narcissistic, greedy.

Josephine Livingstone’s article for The New Republic is much less targeted in its attack but no less absolute in its judgment. It condemns any parents, regardless of motive, who regularly post photos of their children on social media:

When I discussed this article’s ideas with a colleague of mine, she predicted ‘a wave of memoirs, circa 2030, by people who were psychologically damaged as children because they got posted about too much.’ That could be your child. You could be condemning them to a career of misery-memoir with every photo you post.

… 

Then there’s this piece from the San Diego Tribune, with the indignant headline: “It May Be Art, but What About the Kids?”

This last essay appeared not in 2019 but in 1992. Its subject was not a lifestyle influencer’s Instagram feed, but a bona fide printed book, by the photographer Sally Mann.

Pieced together over several summers at the family’s home in rural Virginia, Immediate Family features Mann’s three children in various states of imaginative play, physical exertion, and reverie. There is nothing sanitized or sentimental about the collection. Mann turns her photographer’s eye to less conventionally photogenic moments in the life of a child, and in the experience of a parent—minor injuries, vomit, and bed-wetting among them.

As Janet Malcolm writes, “(Mann’s photographs) are not your usual pictures of the children to send to the grandparents; they are pictures to send to the Museum of Modern Art.” The images in Immediate Family are, undeniably, capital-A art.

Sally Mann, “At Warm Springs” (1991).

Sally Mann, “At Warm Springs” (1991).

But the unconventional style and content of Mann’s photographs garnered controversy. Even The New York Times Magazine, which published an extensive profile of Mann back in 1992, titled the piece “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann.” Accusations of exposing her children’s bodies to pedophiles (about 1/5 of the photos in Immediate Family are nude) hover over the essay:

The shield of motherhood can quickly become a sword when turned against her. If it is her solemn responsibility, as she says, “to protect my children from all harm,” has she knowingly put them at risk by releasing these pictures into a world where pedophilia exists? Can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits, even if -- especially if -- the artist is their parent? 

At issue, it seems, wasn’t the quality of the photographs, but the quality of the mother behind the camera.

… 

When Immediate Family came out in 1992, I was a geeky, introverted twelve-year-old curled up with Jane Austen’s complete works, oblivious to my parents’ inner lives, and mostly indifferent to the world outside my bedroom door. The internet was in its infancy; social media still a glimmer in its parents’ eye.

But the vitriol was already there. In blurring the lines between her motherhood and her art, Mann had taken photographs that read to certain viewers as irresponsible, if not dangerous. She seemed to have abnegated her duties as a mother, pursuing her creative obsessions at the expense of her kids’ well-being.**

The reactions to Mann’s photographs, which range from discomfort to outright hostility, provide some much-needed perspective on the recent backlash against today’s “mommy bloggers.”

Mann’s work suggests that the need to articulate one’s experience of motherhood, or at least to make art while actively parenting, had been felt long before the Internet. It might not have had the same style or been derisively pigeonholed as “mommy blogging,” but it was still happening, broadcast on the lower frequencies.

Immediate Family occupies this position at the crossroads, or on the cusp, of a new era of parenting in public. It prefigures today’s wired world: “through her art she explored where the private meets the public sphere before the internet, Facebook, and the rest, had made it a part of our everyday.”

Mann’s experience has gone mainstream.

Sally Mann, “Blowing Bubbles” (1987).

Sally Mann, “Blowing Bubbles” (1987).

III.

It all started when Mann’s daughter Jessie returned home from a neighbor's house, her face bloated with bug bites. Mann immediately posed Jessie against a wall and took the shot; she returned the next day for more pictures of her daughter’s still-swollen face. She would title the portrait “Damaged Child,” a nod to a piece by famed Depression-Era photographer Dorothea Lange.

TOP: Dorothea Lange, “Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma” (1936). BOTTOM: Sally Mann, “Damaged Child” (1984).

In 1979, Mann had given birth to her first child, then had two additional kids within the next five years. Her work rhythm, by necessity, changed; she no longer had the time or freedom to set up shoots elsewhere. So, she decided to use the subjects and spaces at her disposal:

Her solution to the demands of motherhood, which have eaten away at the schedules of artistic women throughout the ages, was ingenious: with her children as subjects, making art became a kind of child care.***

Out of these practical exigencies, though, Mann created art that was at a level of remove from the humdrum realities of everyday parenting. Right from the first, her photographs combined documentary fact and staged fictions, as she sought out a dark poetry, a dreamlike weirdness.

While immersing herself in the particulars, like the sweaty, clambering limbs of her children, Mann nonetheless gestured widely: to the history of photography, to the lingering shadows of race and racism in her particular slice of the American South.****

IV.

So, what exactly “disturbs” about Immediate Family? What gives Mann’s work its edge, its aura of danger?

For one, Mann’s camera lingers on the facets of raising kids that we don’t tend to chronicle, the moments we rarely expose to the light of public scrutiny.

She photographs her daughter Jessie’s bug bites, her son Emmett’s bloody nose. In the latter image, Emmett wears this goofily ambiguous expression, while his hand gestures resemble a magician revealing a trick. The blood seems almost too red, like it’s been stolen from a pulp movie set, or like a cherry popsicle has melted down his chest. The photograph has an oddball and strangely playful quality, but it also taps into darker subliminal associations, introducing the subtext of violence toward children.

Sally Mann, “Bloody Nose” (1991).

Sally Mann, “Bloody Nose” (1991).

Mann provides an equally unsettling lens on childhood. As a parent, you are an observer-participant thrust once again into the world of childhood, while also remaining on the outside. Childhood is not quite what or how you remembered it; it is both more wondrous and more terrifying:

This balance and tension in Mann's art seeks to suggest that childhood is a more complicated state than our society has historically accepted. The photographs point to spaces of childhood that are anything but innocent and that many viewers would prefer not to see or talk about—and yet we talk about abuse and molestation almost obsessively, as if these were the only sensory experiences available to children. Mann's images do not corrupt childhood innocence, for it is there as well. But there is something more going on, beyond the romping of sprites in Edenic fields that is gentle and vertiginous and frightening all at once. These children are knowing and wounded as well; childhood is seen both from within and without.

Underneath all of that, or bound up in it, might be a deeper trigger: the possibility that Mann’s photographs exploited her children.

I don’t mean the child-pornography allegations, which I find mostly empty and exaggerated.***** Instead, I’m referring to the notion that portrait photography is, in its essence, a predatory act. In On Photography, Susan Sontag posits that

…there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.

The photographer is the one who determines, at least relatively speaking, the picture’s meaning. The subjects give up their subjectivity, surrender control over their own image.

When the artist also happens to be the mother, we can better see this unequal power dynamic between photographer and photographed.

Sally Mann, “The Perfect Tomato” (1990). Mann was especially criticized for the nude photographs, like this one of Jessie, included in  Immediate Family .

Sally Mann, “The Perfect Tomato” (1990). Mann was especially criticized for the nude photographs, like this one of Jessie, included in Immediate Family.

Regardless of the medium, I wonder if this is what critics object to about motherhood memoirs and “mommy blogs.” Rather than seeing themselves as walk-on characters in their children’s life story, parents are instead writing themselves into the script.

We tend to think of parents as sidekicks, suppressing our own desires in order to patiently, painstakingly guide our children toward a state of independence. So, there’s something unnerving about the role reversal: a mother conveying her autonomous vision of the world, with her children as the raw materials, the vessels, for that creative act of self-expression.

Mann’s photographs are provocative in many ways other than the ones I’ve listed here. One of the more interesting criticisms of her work, for example, has to do with class representation. Her kids are comfortably middle class, yet their romps leave them dirt-covered and disheveled. As in “Damaged Child,” mentioned above, Mann references a photograph of a child who had actually suffered poverty, displacement, a strange pairing with her own child’s relatively temporary discomfort.

But Mann could include all of these layers of nuance and provocation and more, while still acting as a caring mother to her children. (Of course, she could!)

That 1992 New York Times article includes a scene from an impromptu photography session between Mann and her daughter Jessie. What strikes me is how playful it is, and how both parent and child collaborate in the process. Mann might explore dark themes in her work, but nothing about the way she interacts with her child in that moment is anything but loving, and light.

V.

Byron’s 19th-century poetry and Mann’s 20th-century photographs are clearly not equivalent to a sponsored Instagram photo of chubby toddler hands grabbing for a bowl of Special K. I feel a little silly grouping them together.

But they do share this commonality: they are all pieces of culture that bring parenting out in public. Our wildly disparate reactions to them—the celebration of Byron’s paternal longing for his child, the condemnation of Mann’s ‘unmaternal’ act of exposing hers—are telling.

If I’ve bristled a bit in this post (I have some skin in the game after all), it’s not because I believe we shouldn’t look hard at the boundaries between our public selves and our families’ private lives:

How do we testify to own experiences of parenthood while safeguarding our children’s privacy? How do we resist making our young children part of our online ‘brand,’ in an era when individuals are increasingly asked to advertise themselves?

These are useful questions to pose to myself, my husband, and later my child. I just cannot determine the parameters for any family other than my own. And even then, I have a hunch that, if I’m still compelled to write about motherhood in 5 or 10 years, my answers will look quite different than they do today.

The bigger issue, though, is that such public censure might shut down a discourse about parenthood that has just begun to flourish and find a wider audience. Until recently, topics like postpartum anxiety and depression, pregnancy loss, or pelvic-floor and other birth injuries were secret shames, confined to the dark shadows. More generally, this new transparency brings a reassuring realness, and a sense of virtual community, to our own imperfect practices as parents.

Perhaps modern caregivers are overexposing our children, whether for the sake of self-expression, commerce, mental health, or some combination of the above.

But these strident criticisms, whether of Mann or the “mommy bloggers,” expose much more. They reveal how our culture harshly judges parents’ choices while leaving them less supported than ever. They make visible our still-limited imaginings of motherhood, and of the identities and obligations of the artist.

In response to this lack, Immediate Family expands our visual vocabulary. It adds to our repertoire of images around childhood and enriches our associations with the often idealized concept of “the maternal.” Mann’s photographs teach us to see motherhood, and childhood, anew. That is their magic. Their dangerous art.

Sally Mann, “The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude” (1987).******

Sally Mann, “The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude” (1987).******

NOTES

*A quick, incomplete history of “mommy blogging”: the blog form of the phenomenon, begun in the 2000s, had originated as an outlet for women feeling trapped, or duped, by early motherhood. As these blogs began to resonate with readers, they often became monetized, with some writers accepting sponsored posts. The new infusion of cash and corporate influence created pressure to present a picture-perfect ‘lifestyle’ fully at odds with the original punk-rock spirit of those early blogs. Today, with the decline of the blog format (I guess I missed that memo), “mommy blogging” has now jumped platforms. Today, it refers mainly to parents posting on social media.

** It was actually Mann’s children who insisted that she publish the photos sooner rather than later; she had wanted to wait a decade, when “the kids (wouldn’t) be living in the same bodies.” Mann and her husband did take steps to protect their kids—the two older children went to a psychologist to be sure that they understood the implications of publishing the photos. She also attempted to limit the availability of Immediate Family in Lexington-area bookstores and libraries.

***BTW, the wording here irks me. Yes, photographing her children solved some of her artistic problems, allowing for more flexibility and spontaneity. But these photo projects were hardly a substitute for the real work of child care that she was doing in addition to her photography.

****Some of Mann’s pictures nod to 20th-century luminaries, from Lange (mentioned above) to Edward Weston and Robert Frank. Critics have also remarked on the Victorian-Era sensibilities of Mann’s photos, recalling the early photography of Julia Margaret Cameron or Lewis Carroll.

That old-timey, 19th-century quality of her pictures adds to their Southern Gothic feeling. Mann would more explicitly look at the history of racism and racist violence in later work, like 1998’s “Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie).” The photograph depicts the Mississippi bridge from which his murderers threw the weighted body of 14-year-old Emmett Till (after whom Mann had named her son).

*****According to Dr. Aaron Esman, a child psychiatrist interviewed for the documentary Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, Mann had “no intention to jeopardize her children or use them for pornographic images.” He continues that only “a case-hardened pedophile or a rather dogmatic religious fundamentalist” would find them erotically charged.

******There is a tragic coda to Mann’s story that didn’t fit easily into this essay. Her oldest child Emmett, born, like myself, in 1979, struggled with schizophrenia; he committed suicide in 2016. Learning of his death, I thought back to Mann’s words from the 1992 profile in the New York Times: “the more I look at the life of the children, the more enigmatic and fraught with danger and loss their lives become. That's what taking any picture is about. At some point, you just weigh the risks.” 

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