I love to photograph my kids in regular settings like normal people, at their birthday parties and proms. I also like to have them pose and dress up to act out different concepts I’ve dreamed up. I’m currently working on a series of photos, Chore Boy, with my oldest son, Peter. He is a willing model, and somewhat vain like most young folk, and that makes it fun and easy. When my kids were little, I took some bathtub photos and one memorable one of my youngest, peeing on a fence. The only thing you could see was his cute behind. I never had the guts to make any full frontal nude photos of them, probably because of my own discomfort with nudity. The photographer, Sally Mann, on the other hand, spent her formative years naked on her family’s farm and approached photographing her children in a very natural, candid and direct way.
I just finished reading her new book Hold Still. It is her story, aptly illustrated with photos from her life, most of them not taken by her. Among many things she talks about, her childhood and living in the south, she also addresses the questions that have never gone away about her body of work, Immediate Family, which contains some naked images of her prepubescent children. If you’ve ever seen them, they are beautiful and haunting and possibly erotic depending on where you, the viewer is coming from in your life and experience. All art, no matter what medium, is viewed through the lens of the experience of the viewer. When the art in question involves naked children all hell can break loose.
It is interesting that, more than twenty years after the showing of her work, Ms. Mann has had to revisit this topic over and over. It’s as if interviewers want her to admit that she has dark secrets and had evil, creepy motives. During an interview this past May on Fresh Air, Terry Gross keeps circling back to the question, “What were you thinking? What was your motivation?”
Sally explains that these each of these photos is just a fraction of a second of a moment in time. If we looked at the contact sheet of all the photos taking during that shoot, you’d see photos of regular children. Ms. Gross acknowledges that but states that we, the viewers, don’t see the contact sheet, we only see the photo she chose for us to see.
“The ones that you selected are often the ones that would be considered potentially erotic. What did you want to show about your children?” Ms. Gross misses the point. Sally Mann is not telling a story about her children. She is making beautiful, thought-provoking images. Sadly, she has been put on the defensive for two decades.
Sally Mann responds, “I don’t think that they are eroticized.”
Of course she doesn’t because she is coming from a place of complete comfort with the human body. She is also an artist, a photographer, who captures what she sees in that particular moment. She picked up a camera in the middle of her interview with Richard B. Woodward for The New York Times Magazine to capture one of her children dressed in a costume made of leaves. The role of the artist is to get people to think, to get people to make up their own story, to get people to react, which they wouldn’t do if she published pictures like the ones that most of us take of our kids. That is why she is a famous photographer and the rest of us are not.
Mann says, “I was surprised at the dead certainty of people’s opinions of my motivation. They are just tiny, tiny moments slivered out of time.”
I was taking a photography class in art school with a very interesting and distinguished professor who liked to tell us personal stories about famous photographers that he has known. He spoke about Sally Mann, saying that she used to set up her camera way out on her farm. If her kids wanted something, they’d have to find her and pose before she’d comply with their wishes.
I don’t think it matters whether or not this story is true. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because as both a mother and an artist, I spend a lot of time cajoling and bribing my kids to get them to do things. Some of the things I know are good for them, like reading the first Harry Potter book and others are good for me, like having them pose for photos for my various projects.
When people look at art, they come from their own belief system, their own personal experience, and their own desires. Some just look at the art and enjoy, others think about it. One must always remember that when looking any art and especially photography, the image is never what it is. It is a photo of such and such but it is not actually such and such. Take for example the picture of my niece, son and daughter above. On a family visit, the kids were goofing around, trying on some of my fake furs and hats and we had a fun photo shoot. This is a picture of them posing. It’s not them. It is not who they are at any given time. They are actors. But to some it may be a provocative photo, which is why I chose it for this piece.
When you are a creative and a parent, it is natural to include your children in your art, whether they star in it or help you prime your canvases. Many artists have done this, including Rembrandt and Picasso. The good thing about using your kids is they are free labor and you get to capture a moment in their lives while doing what you love, making art.
Kathleen Thometz is an artist, freelance writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a mobile art program. She has one husband, four children and three doodle dogs, Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. She blogs at kathleenthometz.com and has contributed to the mid.