I sent this very rough draft to my tutor and after a video call, I filled in and re-wrote the essay according to his suggestions.
Sally Mann became notorious in the US as a result of the photographs of her children at play—sometimes without clothing– on their sprawling farm in Virginia. A self-proclaimed feral child herself, it is no surprise that Mann’s photographs capture the free, happy, and sometimes wild childhood of her children. Understanding the context that surrounds Mann’s is paramount to understanding what the work is about. The issue that arose from the naked shots of her children was a problem of misunderstanding the context of production and relying solely of the context of perception. While many people saw the images as sexual in nature and exploitative, understanding Mann and her work makes one realize that it is anything but.
Sally Mann grew up also in Virginia and describes her child self as feral. However, while it seems she had a carefree childhood, in her ((memoir Hold Still)) she mentions on numerous occasions that her father was distant. In the film xxx in talking with her mother she says that as children they were “terrified” of their father. Not because he was violent, but because he was vastly distant. In understanding this context, one can extrapolate that Mann aimed to raise her children in a way that was like her own childhood—free—but she tried to fill that void of her father by creating a bond between her children and herself. This can be seen explicitly in her photographs of the children; it takes a close relationship with her kids to capture the images that she did. Susan Sontag commented on Diane Arbus’ photographs saying that in photographing ‘freaks’ Arbus was expressing ‘a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged’ (find resource). In a similar vein, Mann seems to be using the photographs as a way to ‘see’ her children and as Barthes says to ‘authenticate the existence of a certain being’ (Barthes, 1981). It seems a direct response to the fact that she did not feel ‘seen’ by her own father.
Additionally, it is important to understand the context in which Mann photographs, and that is that she believes good art can be made within your immediate surroundings. (add notes here about Mann’s process and personal beliefs on photography—from the film).
I chose a photograph from Mann’s controversial series XXXXX, though I chose an image that was not one of a naked child but one that carries significant duality. Looking at the image from a denotative point of view, the eye first notices the child in white. Even though the eyes scans from left to right, the whiteness of the child’s dress, skin, and hair immediately draws the eye to it since it is in a sea of black. Quickly the eye darts down to the white hair of the deer and the dead black eye surrounded in white hair. Later the eye realizes they are positioned at the back of a pick-up truck and lastly, but importantly, the eye lands on the large slit in the deer’s neck. It is difficult to look at this image and think only of the denotation because it is such a striking and odd duo in the image.
Barthes says that ‘the photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force’ (Barthes, 1981). The dual nature of this photograph is both in its violence in Barthes’ terms but also in the fact that there was an act of violence in killing the deer. This violent act when juxtaposed with the little girl in the white tutu is striking. The punctum of this juxtaposition is further compounded when the eye falls on the bucket of blood. One can guess that that bucket was, maybe only minutes before, placed under the deer in order to capture the blood as it oozed from the very large slit in the deer’s neck. It is an unlikely pairing to see next to a small, innocent looking child. Nor would you imagine a little girl interested in such frilly costumes to be anywhere near such a grizzly scene. Marvin Heiferman said about photographs that ‘for a moment you can stop something and look at it in a way that you normally wouldn’t see’ (xxxx). In this image it feels as if we are glimpsing a very brief encounter between child and deer. We can imagine that when the truck drove up with the deer, or the deer was brought to the truck, this little girl, lost somewhere in play land ran up and Mann, with sharp eyes that always scan for an image, took the shot. She may have even told the child to wait while she got the shot (add some quotes from the film about her getting ‘that look’ and getting her kids to wait. The stadium of this photograph, a dead dear and a small child is in it of itself punctum in nature because of the unlikely contrast between the violence of the dead animal and the innocence of the child, not to mention the proximity of the child to the animal; it suggests a familiarity with the practice of killing animals. Living in rural Virginia, the children were immersed rural ways of living, which would have included death.
The iconic tutu a symbol of childhood that conjures images of unstructured play time.
The connotation of the truck and the slit in the deer’s neck conjures another possibility other that on the way home from a dance recital the family hit a dear and in order to put it out of its suffering, they slit the deer’s neck. Upon getting out of the truck, the little girl who face could also connote uncomfortableness, was placed there by Mann to get the photograph. Mann talks about her process in photographing that she often first sees the shot then goes back to take it (find the source here…from the film)
To deconstruct the image…
Sources to formalize:
Coursera video of Heiferman