Yingying Xue

CMP-Research and Critical Practice

RD8-Nude Children

Nude Children ( Q3 to listed questions)

In the picture of Emmet, Jessie & Virginia, the children appeared to be wearing nothing apart from Emmett who is wearing a pants. It appeared that Emmett is also wearing lucky chains and Jessie seems to be wearing a ring. Virginia, however, is not wearing anything.

It occurred that there are more photos in the series of Immediate Family in which the children are seen nude. Some even argued that the book had made Sally Mann famous for the wrong reasons. To most people, Sally Mann is the photographer who took pictures of her children naked. In this entry, I will  go through a few of Sally Mann’s photos and find out why the children are naked.

In some of her photos, the children wear no clothes at all and modeled in front of the camera. The ways they look and behave are very unusual as to any other family photo collections. The belowing photo featured Jessie at five with naked pose wearing necklace. The title is shocking in that this girl looks as if she could be twelve or thirteen, modeling for a fashion magazine. The image plays off of the concept of age, and what it truly means to be a child. With humble little Virginia by the side, Jessie posed and looked much older than her real age. She flaunts for the camera with a centerfold gaze.

Yet some would argue this photo as child porngraphy. Jessie, who was only a five years old, played a sextual look in the photo. There are also other photos that have naked scene, and they have also received similar critical reviews.


(Jessie at Five, 1987, Online Image From : http://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/28659 , accessed on 08th Nov 10) 

Other photos also showed her naked children in different poses. These photos of Mann’s own children are by far her most riveting. She captures her young naked son wading in a creek (wet hair, wet lips, sultry eyes)–all the makings of soft-core child porn.Critics exaggerated the intimacy of the photos at the expense of their artfulness; and because the American religious right accused her of pornography when her camera was capturing her version of beauty.

In response to child pornography, Sally Mann defended that

“Out of the 65 photos in the book, only 13 show the children naked. There was no internet in those days. I’d never seen child pornography. It wasn’t in people’s consciousness. Showing my children’s bodies didn’t seem unusual to me. Exploitation was the farthest thing from my mind.”

Sally Mann argued that what she take was nothing to do with child abuse or pornography. On one occasion, she had made explanation for a photo which sees her children naked by the lake. Sally Mann defended that there were hardly anyone around the lake for a long distance, it is not unusual in that environment for children to go naked and enjoy swimming. Because of the way she brought up and the custom in Virginia, things may be seen in different ways.

They are simply the photos a mother takes down of what happened in a daily life of a child. She mentioned about her childhood, being the only girl of three children to a doctor and bookshop owner, she had enjoyed a wild life in the rural Virginia area. There she was brought up in a naked way when she was a child and close to nature. The experience of her feral childhood may have just influenced her work when she took photos of her naked children. To her, these are no unusual scenes but true to a mother’s eyes.

“My parents were eccentric, and when I had my own children, I didn’t see any point in making them wear bathing suits when we swam in the river,” Mann says. “There was no one within five miles of us.”, sourced from : http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Model_Family.html, accessed on 08th Nov 10

And she brought up her children in the traditional Virginia way, undress the children. Whatever comes out from the camera does not involve child porngraphy from her point of view. Jessie at Five wearing necklace with her look is just a young kid going through her own understanding of womenhood. Most of other photos are demonstrating the same idea, in the precious entry about photo staging, I also come across same kind of issue: that although Sally Mann composed the photos, yet she allowed the children to have their own voice and express their own feeling. That is why most photos are powerful and we can see the children’s personalities through their eyes.

Sally Mann created this unusual series of work may suggest another way of narrative of her children growing up and tried to discover themselves and their sexuality.  These children exist in the innocent world that Mann had tried to show. To intepret these controversial photos in a netural position, I found a interesting paragraph as below:

“What adults understand as the sexuality of children is always defined by the adult world; in this view, childhood is not fixed but culturally produced” (Edge, Baylis). ‘Immediate Family’ needs to be considered within the cultural and social climate that produced it; an America which was busy legislating to prevent Federal Funds being used to promote, disseminate or produce material depicting sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children or individuals engaged in sex acts”(Fletcher). Pedophilia is a very real fear in today’s world. When images of this type, no matter how innocent, are displayed to the public, it is always possible that they will be deemed inappropriate. Child molestation is a frighteningly real issue that most would choose to ignore, and stamp out anything that even slightly resembles it.” (sourced from:http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/11/theory-sally-manns-immediate-family.html , accessed on 09th Nov 10)

It is a good point in a way, defending from the children’s side. To know both pros and critical review of the photo surely help me to understand the photo more. If “Immediate Family” is all about showing what really makes up a child and a childhood, it may just happen to be created in its own way. And we can not simply judge it from adults’ views, instead we will need to try to understand the culture and customs behind the scene.

(The Wet Bed, 1987, Online Image From : http://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/8485, accessed on 09th Nov 10)

For Mann, a scene of her naked child wetting the bed is also quite usual. The Wet Bed, above, shows nude Virginia who is seen sleeping, sprawled out on the mattress without a care, her quilt kicked off to her.Yet showing the naked and private parts of her children to the public does somehow made people feel uncomfortable. “The Wet Bed” for example, is an image that most mothers’ see when they have toddlers and should stay in private, but Mann chose to bring her private world to the forefront of the public.

Now these naked photos involve more than just child porngraphy, privacy but also moral issues. Selling her chidren’s naked photo for money is immoral and it had gone beyond the line. As Pat Robertson who was making a documentary on Mann said:

  “Selling photographs of children naked for profit is immoral.” And you know, I think it can be. It’s a slippery slope, and I think conditions get most icy and dangerous when large amounts of money are involved. (Sourced from: http://blog.photoshelter.com/2008/04/sally-mann-jessie-at-12.html, accessed on 07th Nov 10)

At the meantime, the series had more pictures of Sally Mann’s two daughters naked in different poses. But in most occasions, her eldest son Emmet appeared to be wearing shorts with the angry look.  Why is that? And what else is influencing Sally Mann to take nude photos?  I will find out more in the future research.

References : 

Sally Mann(1992),Immediate Family , Aperture, New York

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth 110(2002), Michael Auping, London,ISBN-10: 0929865189

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/may/29/sally-mann-naked-dead , accessed on 08th Nov 10

http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/11/theory-sally-manns-immediate-family.html , accessed on 09th Nov 10

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