If I was to ask you to name an American 20th Century portrait photographer, I think Sally Mann’s name would probably not be the first one to come up. It is true, there are lots of well-known American 20th Century portrait photographers, some of which I already talked about on this blog, like for example Richard Avedon. But somehow, Sally Mann doesn’t seem to register in a way Richard Avedon does. I find that very unfortunate.
For me, this photo easily leaves a much larger imprint in my memory than any of Richard Avedon’s. Of course, a photo’s impact to some extent (where one could argue lengthily about the extent of the “some”) depends on how the viewer sees it. Regardless of how much a photographer tries to control it, ultimately there is some part left where the viewer brings in his or her personality and history and whatever else there is that gets active when looking at photos.
What do I like about this photo? First of all, it’s really a triple portrait, even though most people probably at first sight don’t realize there are more persons in the photo than the girl with the candy cigarette. Apart from the central girl, there’s another one right next to her, with her back to the camera (and she is also striking a pose!). And in the back, out of focus, someone else is walking on stilts.
What this means is that it’s not quite a very simple portrait, there is a dynamic going on between the three children portrayed. A real dynamic I should say, or at least I should say it looks like it’s a real dynamic - unlike what you see in so many of Avedon’s portraits, where it’s obvious that things are just set up, that Avedon coaxed something out of his sitter(s), or the sitter(s) decided to give something.
Here, no one is giving anything - at least that’s what it looks like or what the central girl wants it to look like. (Of course, it could all be set up. In fact, it has to be set up to some extent, since the photo was taken with a large-format camera. But even so, it’s quite believable.) You can tell, she has some knowledge of how people pose, especially with a cigarette, and she is trying to strike such a pose. She is quite successful with the pose, at least with the outline of the pose. But of course, it still doesn’t work, because it’s a candy cigarette, and she’s not old enough to be able to convey everything that adults are trying to convey with this pose. But she’s so casually serious about it!
And of course, there’s that taboo that children aren’t supposed to smoke, and she knows that she’s playing with that taboo (as is the photographer), and I’m just a sucker for people trying to ruffle some feathers.
Sally Mann ruffled some feathers, quite predictably so, with her family images, because of all the nudity. There’s not much need to talk about it - things will probably never change anyway - but I think to some extent this controversy has been in the way of allowing Sally Mann’s (family) work to enter the canon of great American portraiture - that’s where it belongs (and it’s too bad her more recent work, such as “Deep South”, is so utterly forgettable).