Positions and Practice – Week 9 (2/3)

Critical theory – Part 2.

Responding to photographs.

I’ve been having a fascinating dialogue with myself in my head in relation to how we respond to photographs. I hope the eloquent and, what I perceive to be, clear conversation that has taken place is something I can get out on paper (or blog post).

Examples of work by Sally Mann and Tierney Gearon were presented this week as a means to provoke thought. Both women have exhibited images of their children, sometimes naked, which have caused public/media controversy.

We were asked if we felt positive, negative or neutral to the photographs chosen; what our response was to the subject matter and how it is represented; what we felt the difference is between the projects and which one we preferred and why.  Having read the interviews they gave in defence of their work we were then asked if this changed our view of the images, whether their defence was plausibly informed and how critical their comments on the situation were.

At first glance I am do not have any major interest in the photographs, other then my preference to the black and white choice and style of Mann. Images of children have never been a particular draw for me unless, as with any other image, there is something that strikes me and makes me want to learn more. Knowing that some of Mann’s images were censored and that the police interviewed Gearon about her work is quite baffling to me and speaks more about the viewers skewed viewpoint of ordinary images of naked children somehow being child pornography. At no point do I feel the images are exploitative – Mann’s seem to evoke Lord of the Flies or Alice in Wonderland but I just don’t see why so much fuss should be made. It is the same with Gearon’s work, which resembles, to me, memories from the 70s with the bright colours and everyday family album feel.

The ethereal sense of Mann’s images are more appealing to me, much as her other work, but I wonder if this is more about the fact that women, mothers, chose to exhibit their family and how very dare they do something that rocks the patriarchal boat.

In her interview with the New York Times Magazine last year, Mann talks about correspondence that claimed she was a “bad mother”. So why did this not happen to Alain Laboile for example with his family photos in La Famille – an interview in a New York Times blog claims his work captures a childhood idyll in France? Yet some of his images show his children naked.

In defending their work both Mann and Gearon seem perplexed at the outrage the images caused in some quarters. Gearon is honest in her description of the pictures as snapshots in the 2001 Guardian article and that it was probably more to do with her personal connection to Kay and Charles Saatchi that enabled the exhibition to take place. Mann is more expressive in setting the scene but both perhaps shared their images with a naivety about the reaction some people may have to them.

I do find Gearon’s comment that Mann’s images are more sexualised than hers an interesting one. It seems to be said with a tone of immaturity or perhaps because Mann’s children are older  she felt people would read their burgeoning sexual awareness more acutely. Both women speak about censoring the images, either by not taking them in the first place or involving their children in the editing process. More interesting is the effect a critical article in Wall Street Journal, which saw Mann’s youngest child writing to the editor and article journalist to challenge their view, had on the girl and how it change her self awareness. Looking back, how do the children feel now?

It seems Mann’s work attracted more public criticism, including the belief that “insisted that the rules were different for a mother”. Although taken by Mann, why is her husband who was happy with the project not jointly responsible for whether or not his children’s photos were shared with the world?

As Mann points out herself, the advertising industry is awash with “prurient” images of young women to sell products, and maybe if we are to throw societal hands up in despair at these family life photographs perhaps more should be done to address the continual sexualisation of women as objects in advertising and fashion, and why women who have their photo taken this way feel a need to do so. Not to forget young men too.

For me Mann’s interview seems to show how deeply she has thought about this work, including how it attracted a “stalker” and giving those who said it would attract weirdos their moment of glory. But one contradiction in Mann’s interview that nags at me a little is towards the end where she speaks about the privacy of the farm where they lived and the images were taken and how, in such a private setting, it would have seemed odd to wear bathing suits to play in the river.

If this privacy provide them the freedom to live this way, what was the drive to share the photographs publicly?