Sally MannGoosebumps (1990)

I’ve introduced roughly a half-dozen folks to Mann. And I’ve had the pleasure to sit with at least three of them while they perused Immediate Family for the first time.

This image almost always solicits some sort of visceral response. Whether it’s a gasp or an unsettled comment about how the photograph maybe takes things a little farther than they should have been taken.

I’ll defend Mann to the ends of the earth and back. Her work–all of it, no matter how sentimental, overwrought or printed inexplicably pitch dark–will always render me impossibly spellbound.

And I know she’d respond to the people I’ve watched shifted uncomfortably looking this image. She’d likely offer the following anecdote:

Jessie, who was 9 or 10 at the time, was trying on dresses to wear to a
gallery opening of the family pictures in New York. It was spring, and
one dress was sleeveless. When Jessie raised her arms, she realized that
her chest was visible through the oversize armholes. She tossed that
dress aside, and a friend remarked with some perplexity: “Jessie, I
don’t get it. Why on earth would you care if someone can see your chest
through the armholes when you are going to be in a room with a bunch of
pictures that show that same bare chest?”

Jessie was equally perplexed at the friend’s reaction: “Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.”

I don’t think she’s being disingenuous–I’d go so far as to say knowing what I do about her: she’s incapable of that.

But I do think part of what she’s skillfully avoided addressing in all the controversy surrounding her work is her own voyeurism. Her images–to a one–show us things that implicate the viewer by pulling aside the curtain to reveal things we would–if we were polite–avert our gaze. We don’t though.

And what I think is so vital about her work is what shines through in this work so clearly–everything about this image feels like a private moment (and if I recall correctly, it was until Mann caught a glimpse of it and asked I think it’s Jessie here to hold still while she got her camera).

I feel what upsets people is that we judge Mann as a woman and a mother on top of being a photographer. The photographers duty is to be unflinching–but many people suggest Mann was a bad mother.

But frankly, I don’t really understand the controversy surrounding her work. Although, looking at this photograph, I do find myself wondering how much richer her work would’ve been had she not had to navigate such a puritanical society which associates so automatically nudity as categorically interchangeable with sexuality.

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