The Maternal Eye of Sally Mann

Two decades after her photographs of her children created a furor, she reveals the curious logic of her art.

Sally Mann / Little, Brown and Company

If you know anything about Sally Mann, it’s that she photographed her three children, with clothes and without, in poses that can look sexual, morbid, or both. There’s the photo of Virginia, the youngest child, sleeping blissfully, vulnerably, on a mattress, surrounded by a dried-up puddle of something. There’s the picture of Emmett clutching a pair of squirrel carcasses arranged in a vaguely copulatory pose. And there’s the photograph of the older daughter, Jessie, nude, hanging by her arms from a hay hook.

Back in 1992 when some of Mann’s photographs of her children were published in Immediate Family, Mann was raked over the coals—accused of being a bad mother, of exploiting her children, and, worst of all, of inviting the Humbert Humberts of the world to feast their eyes on her little ones. All the anxieties of parents around the country seemed to focus on Mann’s family in rural Virginia. Now Mann has written a memoir, and in it she explains the strange and magical thinking behind some of those infamous family photographs.

Hold Still, multigenerational in its scope, southern in its humor, and Nabokovian in its ambition, is gorgeously written and convincing. It is also spiked with family snapshots, outtakes of her well-known photographs, bad and funny report cards, bizarre stories, and terrible mental images that will be hard for some readers to shake. One moment in particular stands out for its horror but also offers a key to understanding how Mann sees photography and its tenuous but powerful ties to reality and memory.

Mann recalls that “on a hot afternoon in early September 1987,” she walked “to the road at the top of our driveway to meet Emmett, who was on his way home from playing with a friend.”

An idling bulldozer blocked my sightline, but I spotted Emmett as he approached the road … Emmett paused on the other side of the street by the bulldozer … I held up my hand, palm forward, in the universal “stop” sign … Emmett mistook it for a “come to me in a hurry” sign and did just that. A second before he sprang forward, the flagman signaled the impatiently waiting cars to come ahead. The first car in the queue was a 1970s Chevelle, a heavy, powerful car driven by a seventeen-year-old … The poor kid couldn’t possibly have braked to avoid Emmett, who had leapt out from his side of the road, his happy eyes on mine … The car, going about thirty-five miles per hour, caught him midleap. Emmett’s head slammed into the hood and he was catapulted more than forty feet, where he lay crumpled and bleeding in the middle of the road.

The story is plenty shocking, but it becomes doubly so when Mann reveals what was happening in her mind during the 11 minutes after he landed, when time stopped for her: “I actually wondered as I lay there, with my dying son, (or so I thought) if I could even hold a camera up. And, of course, there was no way. I am just not that kind of photographer.” Mann realized she couldn’t take a photograph of her own dying child (and hallelujah for that!), but what’s weird is that she thought of it, and didn’t let go of the thought.

In fact, once she knew Emmett would be fine, she tried to get such a picture. “I tried to make a photograph of the way Emmett looked when he was hit, or the way I felt he looked,” Mann writes. “I couldn’t shake from my memory the image of his sunlit, smiling face as he sprang toward me.” She took a blurry photograph of Emmett’s face with his tongue hanging out like a dog’s. She took pictures of the bloodied sheets from the hospital. She took a self-portrait with the bloodstained clothes. Nothing worked.

In October, after Emmett had completely healed, Mann tried a different tack. She photographed him standing nude in the chilly river near their home—in an inner tube, with a snorkel, without a snorkel, hands in the water, hands just out of the water. The light was wrong, the shapes were wrong, the posture was awkward, the boy was getting irritated. Finally, when Emmett “announced that it was the last damn time he would model in the freezing river,” she got the shot she wanted: Emmett lightly tracing the water, turned slightly sideways, looking toward her with , maybe even contemptuous, look. Gone was the “sunlit, smiling face.” For other people, putting their child through such an exorcism, especially after a near-death experience, would be unthinkable. But for her, the need to do battle with her traumatic memory—with the reality that was—won out.

Photographs seem to represent, for Mann, a counter-reality, an opposition to what is and what was. The dangers in them represent not the real dangers at hand, but dangers that might have been or could be. Meanwhile, some of the real dangers are erased, written over. So are the memories. When she tries to recall her beloved father, Robert Munger, she recalls only photographs she’s seen. “Because of the many pictures I have of my father, he eludes me completely.” Conversely, her friend and neighbor, the artist Cy Twombly, who was rarely photographed, is all there: “His drawling voice, his wrinkled face, the gap between the front teeth.”

Mann says her first good family photograph was Damaged Child, in which her daughter Jessie looks like she’s been beaten up. In fact, Jessie’s face was swollen with bug bites. Mann chose that title to bring out the brutal resonance with Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 photograph of a poor girl in rags in Shacktown, Oklahoma. She pinpoints what appealed to her in the image she caught of her own child:

As strange as it sounds, I found something comforting about this disturbing picture. Looking at the still-damp contact print, and then looking at Jessie, completely recovered and twirling around the house in her pink tutu, I realized the image inoculated me to a possible reality that I might not henceforth have to suffer. Maybe this could be an escape from the manifold terrors of child rearing, an apotropaic protection; stare them straight in the face but at a remove—on paper, in a photograph.

For that reason, Mann likes to photograph “disease and accidents of every kind.” She magnifies her children’s cases of “common impetigo into leprosy, skin wrinkles into whip marks, simple bruises into hemorrhagic fever.” She deliberately makes things look worse than they are. And “when a scary situation turned out benign,” she writes, “I replayed it for the camera with the worst possible outcome.”

Once, when Jessie went missing near a creek, Mann began a frantic search. Her daughter was soon found, but Mann could not shake her fear. “The next day I set up the camera [and] cajoled seven-year-old Emmett into putting on a dress.” Then she made him play dead in some leaves. It is this kind of gothic sensibility, this intrepid wish to stare down horror in order to prevent it, that produces photographs in which sticky Popsicle juice running down a naked body can look like blood, in which a ring of pee surrounding a little girl on a mattress can look like the remains of a violation, and in which sleep can look like death.

Mann is amazed when people do not get the distinction between photographs—“figures on silvery paper, slivered out of time”—and reality. In this, Mann seems unexpectedly Victorian. In her photographs, capturing reality is not typically the aim; her children play roles, much as little girls played beggars, dreamers, and fairy-tale characters for Lewis Carroll’s camera. Indeed, some of Mann’s pictures of her children echo Carroll’s photographs of his child subjects. Think of Alice Liddell (the model for Alice in Wonderland) dressed in beggar’s rags and holding out a cupped hand, one eyebrow raised, her dress falling off her shoulders. Her expression is both appealing and knowing. She was clearly in on the game, and the game, apparently, was grand. Another of Carroll’s child subjects, Dymphna Ellis, once described the excitement of Carroll’s photo-play: “I remember the mess and the mystery … We cried when he went away … We were absolutely fearless with him. We felt he was one of us, and on our side against all the grown-ups.”

Kim Rushing

Far from being helpless subjects, Mann’s children seem willing accomplices, and sometimes willful, defiant ones. They know the kind of pictures their mother likes to take and have often pointed out photographic opportunities to her. They know the difference between pictures and reality. They’ve also had the privilege of editing out photographs they don’t like. Before Immediate Family was published, for instance, Emmett got rid of a nude photograph of himself with socks on his hands, not because he was nude but because he thought he looked like a dork.

Yet is this all just a game? Are there no consequences? Is there no reality attached to the pictures? Even Vladimir Nabokov, the creator of Humbert Humbert and Lolita, believed that although Lewis Carroll’s photographs of children were indeed a charade, it was a “dusty and dreadful charade,” in which little girls were enlisted to play “sad scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-undressed.” Isn’t there also a little of this “wretched perversion,” as Nabokov put it, in Mann’s photographs of her children, despite her stated goal of averting true danger by engaging it in pictures?

What’s fascinating about the case of Sally Mann is that, vigilant though she was—carefully composing photographs to ward off the evil eye—she somehow missed some of the menace her photographs might be courting. The trouble, I’m guessing, lurked not so much in the images that evoked peril, disease, and death as in the more carefree photographs of family life, those that reveled in the lushness of her children’s bodies—“their smell, the doughy smoothness of their skin.” It was the scenes of her dirty children, sometimes nude, sometimes innocently vamping, that brought on a danger that her camera never imagined, a danger that was not there before she took her pictures.

After the publication of Immediate Family, the Manns acquired a stalker. Mann had unwittingly summoned a real Humbert Humbert, expressly devoted to her family. He wanted to know more about them all. He tried to get information from neighbors and friends. He wanted to be part of the family. His desire was the desire that drives stalkers of children everywhere: to have the kind of access only a parent has. (This is also what makes Carroll’s in loco parentis role with Alice and her sisters both cozy and creepy.) For six years, Mann writes, “I was sleepless with fears of Lindbergh baby–like abductions and made sure that the windows were locked, that the house was always occupied, the children accompanied by an adult.”

Odd though it may sound, the Mann family’s stalker almost serves as a perverse confirmation of Mann’s most gothic idea: her belief in the apotropaic power of photographs. If you imagine something in a photograph, it will not materialize. If you don’t, then heaven help you! Maybe Sally Mann’s biggest mistake lay not in portraying her children in the unsettling ways that she did but in letting her guard down, in being lulled into evoking the warm intimacies of family life—in short, in not envisioning the worst.

Mann’s reaction to her family’s stalker supplies a disquieting coda to the story. Though she wasn’t in the habit of carrying her husband’s picture in her wallet, once the stalker appeared, she “started carrying this man’s, and would watch for him with something close to the ardor of a lover,” Mann writes. One way to make sense of this haunting routine, which seems to border on the deranged, is this: She wasn’t actually trying to turn her stalker into a family member. She was pretending that he already was to make sure that he never would be.