Immediate Family

about Sally Mann and Beautyphobia

And then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord

from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

In the early 1990s, Sally Mann catches and disturbs people’s attention with her book Immediate Family, a collection of photographs of her young children naked. The accusations from the critics are against the erotic side of that work, but Sally has very simple words to explain her motivations:

Sally Mann 3

“It’s not that I wanted to do a series of pictures of my children nude, it’s just that they were always nude in the summers when I did most of my shooting. We had a cabin on the river on our farm and there’s not another breathing soul for probably 5 miles in all directions and they just never seemed to wear clothes. Why should they? They were in the river almost all day and deep into the night, so the fact that in many cases the children were nude… That’s just how the children were.”

“I was surprised by the vehemence, I guess, of the letters and the dead certainty that so many people had that they understood… My motivations and feelings and who my children were. People feel like they understand the children just by virtue of looking at the pictures but… Those aren’t my children. Those are photographs of my children. They’re just a tiny, tiny moment slivered out of time, a 30th of a second.”

Sally Mann

Sally’s real intentions apart, her work certainly represents a good input — or provocation — to ask deep questions about our culture and the nature of our instincts relating to sexual sphere. Are we really so sure about the things we know and feel when it comes to sexuality? We come into this world as enchanting little naked creatures, our nudity will be a secondary fact in the eyes of our parents, their friends, and all other persons we’ll meet during our first steps of life. They will look, adore and kiss the little body of their baby, naked or not, with no fear, until one day something will happen, often reluctantly. Like suddenly “betrayed” by their old instinct they’ll begin to consult books or friends, tormented by the spectre of a new word: perversion.

Sally Mann 12

What’s the precise age when we have to start worrying about our bodies and taking responsibility, but, above all, why? Where is that spectre? Perhaps in the innocent forms of a new life, or in our regrets about the loss of innocence because of all the things we have seen and learned along our own journey? I think the vast majority of us knows what are the limits and the rules in the adoration of a young life, to keep from violating and continuing to love, admire and touch it guilt-free. Looking at some african tribes where the nudity is not so “dangerous”, I often ask myself how this world would be if we ever went back to live more “naked” and “immediate”, appreciating the beauty of a flower, without cutting it in half, by letting it being in all its sensual perfection and getting used to it. Maybe, in this way, words as paedophilia or mental illness wouldn’t have any more reason to exist.

Sally Mann 13

In a society increasingly less accustomed to the culture of beauty, and which loves to find terms to give to all those that it considers as phobias, perhaps it would not be entirely wrong to talk about Beautyphobia, and on top of the key triggers of this placing the forms of a young body naked. If to this we add a destructive instinct and almost against the naturalness of things…

The moral sense in mortals is the duty we have to pay on mortal sense of beauty

Vladimir Nabokov







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