Archive for octubre, 2012

22 octubre, 2012

Sally Mann: At Twelve

Written for The Harlow

I first heard of Sally Mann by the mid-1990s, when I was at school in the U.S. At that time, she was famous for having outraged the general public with photographs of her own children. It was no small thing, even Artforum refused to publish her work. So her name, as well as Mapplethorpe’s, popped up in class every time we dealt with art, sexuality, and censorship.

Family Color, 1990-1991

In this controversy, I was ready to side with Mann. Both series, Immediate family (1984-1991) and Family color (1990-1991), portray her kids at absolute ease, wild in action and indolent when not, as lazy and comfortable in their own skins as cats in the sun. For me, there is such a distinctive atmosphere of intimacy and candor that obscenity (overexposure, exhibitionism, abuse) is simply out of the question. It is true that these children are depicted in extreme situations (i.e. injured and bleeding) and mostly naked, like savages in nature and culture, but that’s probably the beauty of it.

Almost twenty years later, La Fábrica (Madrid) presents At Twelve (1983-1985). Equally controversial at the time, this series is composed of 35 b/w, beautiful images of 12-year-old-girls. These young women are photographed in their own surroundings, either alone or with parents and siblings, looking straight into the viewer’s eyes. They are literally half-child / half-adult, their bodies being still in the making, their poses showing, at once, awareness and ignorance of their newly acquired sexuality.

I am surprised at how uncomfortable I feel in front of these photographs. I find them somehow sinister and a bit perverse. And yet, everyday we are literally bombarded by images of teenagers. In the last decades, adolescence has become a genre in itself, being the subject of artists such as Rineke Dijkstra, Inez van Lamsweerde, Anna Gaskell, or Sue De Beer. And, of course, there is Disney channel, a factory of commodified, over-sexualized teen-agers who are ever more pervasive. So, what’s the fuss?

Mann’s oeuvre has a certain feeling of melancholy, mystery, and decay; some sense of desolation and pending doom. At Twelve is no exception. In fact, there are signs of violence and neglect everywhere: the dead cattle surrounding a girl, a blood stain on a blanket; a menacing faceless figure emerging from the dark; a trio of cowboys in the background, watching; a girl lying on an old, dirty car… But these photographs are also dishonest and I do get the impression that, here, these girls have been, definitely, overexposed and manipulated. The reason is that Mann knows something they don’t and is evident to anyone;  something that becomes crystal clear in the photographs: their incredible vulnerability, the hostility of their environment, and that their passage into womanhood will certainly come at a price.

In 1988, Aperture published a book on the series. At Twelve: Portraits of young women includes an essay by Ann Beattie as well as short comments on the sitters by Sally Mann. In contrast with the book’s rather innocuous essay, Mann’s short texts make reference to a tough reality: a girl getting pregnant at eleven; a man shot (in the face) for harassing her step-daughter; children living in the back seat of a car… If this is the world these girls inhabit, this series is not simply about adolescence. It is about the violence that becoming a woman implies in certain contexts. And they are inscribed by class as much as they are by gender. Within this framework, these photographs become somehow voyeuristic and disrespectful. I might be a moralist, but I feel these girls have been cheated…

Until November, 17

La Fábrica, Madrid