In the Eyes & Minds of Beholders

Sura Wood, The Bay Area Reporter, May 12, 2016

The unself-conscious, joyfully naked children in the photographs of Sally Mann are like forest sprites, splashing in the cool water of a muddy river at twilight, frolicking in the languid Southern summer, or swooping through the primordial woods within whose depths lurks black magic. That's the uneasy spell cast by Mann, a respected photographer who, as a young mother with three youngsters, enlisted her children to be her models. It was a critical decision that has yielded mythic, nostalgic, even feral black & white pictures and no small amount of controversy. The response to the children's nudity, in particular, has led to censorship in several prominent publications and sometimes obscured her artistic accomplishment. There have been objections to her kids being too young to understand the implications of their poses, some of which are provocative; accusations of child abuse; fear of pedophiles and stalkers; as well as child pornography laws that threaten the artist and the pursuit of her work. Though Mann has said she thinks "childhood sexuality is an oxymoron," and emphatically stated that her photographs are not erotic, it's what's in the eye and mind of beholders that's troubling and difficult to reconcile.


The intimacy of her imagery makes viewers inadvertently complicit in a form of voyeurism that's hard to resist given the earthy, sensual beauty of the photographs. Referencing icons ranging from Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and Emmet Gowin to Robert Frank, Mann's goals remain artistic, as is her desire to protect, not exploit her children: Emmett, who's 12, the only boy in this mischievous, photogenic crew; Jessie, 10; and, Virginia, who's 7 going on 17. Nowhere is the impishness of the youngest member of the tribe more evident than in a 1988 picture that bears her name, showing her with arms folded, impatiently waiting for her mother to get on with it, and "Modest Child," where, with tousled curls and tiny hands shielding her chest, she's a ringer for Alice, the (initially) pint-sized heroine of Lewis Carroll's books. "Warm Springs" (1991), a fantastical vision of Virginia swimming, her eyes closed, head tipped back in the water, her wet hair encircling her head like a silvery halo, makes one wonder if the child was delivered to her human family in the dead of night by woodland faeries. Emmett playfully goes limp in the arms of a man carrying him away ("After the Party," 1990), and then there's Jessie standing naked, thigh-deep in water ("Punctus," 1992), facing away from the camera, long wet hair coming to a point in the middle of her back, body glistening. In "Jessie at 6" (1987), she's a slender reed of a thing aligning herself with a likewise wiry birch outside the house, but it was the picture of her taken three years earlier, lying on the ground with a face swollen in reaction to bites inflicted by a swarm of gnats, that created a furor over Mann's maternal instincts and her priorities.


Those pictures and a woodsy group portrait of the conspirators, "Emmett, Jessie and Virginia" (1994), are among the mesmerizing images in Immediate Family, a series that began in 1984 and was shot over a 10-year period at the 400-acre Virginia farm owned by Mann's family. It's now on view at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery, along with several portraits of rural girls on the verge of womanhood from At 12.


Though they may seem like snapped-on-the-fly documents of a Tom Sawyer-esque childhood, Mann in fact stages many of her pictures, working from sketches and trying out poses with her restless subjects in the manner of a portraitist. She shoots only during the summer, when the kids are home, using a large-format 8x10 box camera, and prints like a demon the rest of the year to keep up with the demand from clients. Considered one of the best printers in the country, she utilizes 19th-century techniques that give the images a far-away, antiquated look reminiscent of Julia Margaret Cameron and Carroll, both of whom photographed children in an era when 50% of them didn't survive past the age of five, making childhood a prized and perishable commodity.


Mann is certainly not the only artist to draft her children into service. The self-taught Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens, for instance, has called upon the austere beauty and forbearance of his daughter Paula, who has been his subject and muse for two decades. His recent photographic portraits, apparently influenced by Cindy Sherman's propensity for adopting guises, are included in Portraiture, a concurrent group exhibition at the gallery. Kerstens miraculously mimics the golden light and stark black backgrounds of 17th-century Dutch Masters painting in works such as "Red Turban" (2015), in which Paula, her head wrapped in a luxuriant red scarf, appears to be the well-tended wife of a prosperous burgher; her composure, strong features, direct gaze and translucent skin are invaluable in pulling off the charade. Paula, luminous in three-quarter pose, recalls Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring," and prompts a similar question: who is this mysterious, confident young woman, equally self-assured whether her hair is lathered in whip cream ("Cream," 2015) or her head is covered by a plastic trash bag ("Bag")? The late Alexander McQueen was so moved by the latter picture, he used it on the invitation to his 2009 fashion show.


Portraiture also features work by Omar Victor Diop, Lalla Essaydi, Hassan Hajjaj, Zanele Muholi, and Aida Muluneh, all of whom explore issues of identity.