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Essay: Nudity in photographers’ photo collections

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
  • Reading time: 9 minutes
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  • Published: December 26, 2019*
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  • Words: 2,529 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 11 (approx)
  • Nudity in photographers' photo collections
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Roland Barthes describes in his essay Camera Lucida (1980) of the separation between subject and image that is created when a photograph is taken. By outlining the ways in which the camera transforms the subject into an object, the photographic prints remain reminiscent of the past and present. The image acts as a reminder for the viewer that the subject in which they are viewing was once alive and in front of the lens, however through the process of photographing: the moment has passed. Through self-censorship as a social standard, when being photographed the subject is known to create another body for themselves, to later be temporarily immortalized into what Barthes describes as a “flat death.” (Barthes 92) Through the photographic process, the subject has since changed and, due to an ephemerality of the space and time, the same subject that once stood in front of the lens no longer remains.

A photograph acts as a memorial that reminds those viewers externally interacting with the image that they remain alive. Barthes writes of the presence of a “private life as a political right,” (Barthes 15) is one that represents the subject in their truest form, while anything else would be to disrupt the subject as an invasive act. He writes that “the photograph is a witness, but a witness is something that is no more,” (Barthes xi) as not just a record of the physical form that is absent but of “reality in a past state,” a record “of what has been.” (Barthes xvii) As an anthropological study, Barthes explores the relationship between subject, photographer, and image as a means of understanding the process to which one undergoes when they are being photographed to, as a result, become immortalized through the stillness of its own materiality.

First published in 1992, Immediate Family by Sally Mann is a decade-long series consisting of intimate photographs of her three children: Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia. Taken at their summer home in Lexington, Virginia, the work is a combination of factual observation and contrived fiction – nature and artifice. As a glance into the complexity of childhood and family, Mann focuses on the dramatic nature of the photograph and its separation from reality. Mann often recorded the darker side of childhood to draw the viewer into their own fears. Photographing her children in the nude, injured, or in other vulnerable positions: Mann began in 1984 with the photograph Damaged Child, showing Jessie with her face swollen from insect bites. She later followed to record such intimate moments as Emmett’s bloody nose, Virginia’s wet bed in The Wet Bed, and Jessie’s dancing naked on a table in The Perfect Tomato. During such, Mann makes apparent the separation she had created between herself and her children when placed on opposing sides of the camera, as to acknowledge a distinction between past and future – reality and symbol.

Barthes outlines in Camera Lucida that a private life is still possible within the parameters of invasiveness created when a camera is present. He argues that the action of taking a photograph forms an object out of the subject, through immortalization as a witness for death. He writes that the process of photographing is to experience a momentary death of the subject where they remain temporarily immortalized, therefore the resulting subject created beyond the image exists in an altered form, solely constructed by the act of photographing. The image produced no longer remains indexical of the subject, rather the photograph becomes a false reality. The image is contained within the stillness and silence of the frame, as contextualized in Sally Mann’s work Immediate Family. This essay will explore through critical analysis: the photographs, critics response and the parallels each make to Roland Barthes theory of flat death detailed in Camera Lucida, with further study into Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Ariella Azoulay’s Photography: The Ontological Question.

Barthes theorizes that a separation is created when the body is placed in front of the lens through an invasive power dynamic in which formulates a modification to the existing body. He writes, “I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing” (Barthes 11) as a transformation of the subject into an object. Barthes further explains that he is “neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object.” (Barthes 14) Through the process of being photographed as a “micro-version of death,” the lens acts as a classification in a file. (Barthes 14) The image becomes the death of the subject in front of the lens, as they are since altered by the exposure being produced. The person who once remained in front of the lens is no longer the same person after the image is taken. As a natural witness of what has been, the image begins to act as a monument, containing a defeat of time: a record of what is dead and what is going to die. (Barthes 96)

Shot on an 8” x 10” view camera at their farm in Virginia, Mann’s photographs are reminiscent of the relationship built between mother and child. Mann writes in the foreword to her publication of Immediate Family: “We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story. […] But we tell it without fear and without shame.” (Mann 7) Through her work, Mann discusses the objectivity created through the lens – a concept reminiscent of Roland Barthes “flat death”. While creating a barrier of trust, Mann maintained the dignity of those she photographs, preserving an open dialogue and collaborative interaction with the images, one that becomes recognizable through the sheer intimacy, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness of her images.

A Wall Street Journal article published in 1991 entitled “Censoring Virginia”, was written by Raymond Sokolov in focus of Mann’s work and the government funding for art. (Mann 145) Sokolov argued that Mann violated the responsibility of parents: to protect, shelter, and nurture their children. Due to the power dynamic formed between adults and children, Sokolov claimed that the work is an invasive act into their childhood. As interpreted for its indexicality, Sokolov writes of the images through the eyes of the public within its widespread circulation. This misinterpretation became decontextualized to be viewed as evidence and glorification of child abuse, incest, and child sexuality.

In conjunction with the Wall Street Journal article, Sokolov includes a censored image of Sally Mann’s photograph Virginia at 4, covering Virginia’s eyes, chest, and genitalia with black bars. While the image presented by Mann displays Virginia in her innocent, Sokolov’s use of censorship through redaction acts as a means of mutilation. In Mann’s image, Virginia is shown to be standing slightly right of the centre frame with her hands on her ribs, peering directly into the lens at eye level. She is shown nude, with her facial expression neutral, as she poses for the camera, aware that the image is being taken. The background is encased in the shadows, giving little contextual information regarding another girl standing behind Virginia to her left side. While the other girl remains out of focus and wearing a white dress, the lighting upon both girls is angled down towards them, highlighting the shape of Virginia’s physique. Sokolov’s presentation of Virginia through modes of censorship becomes dehumanizing by redacting her eyes. The reproduction appears as though the image is shameful, leaving a more pornographic connotation than the original Mann produced.

Susan Sontag writes in her essay, On Photography (1977) in which precedes Barthes’ Camera Lucida, of the way in which the lens acts as a form of surveillance making an artifact of reality. Sontag theorizes that the photograph is an appropriation of the object in front of the lens. Through such acknowledgement, the camera and resulted light-sensitive material has little capacity to capture the full extent of what lays before the lens. Rather, the image produced becomes a tangible object of the single moment in time, only merely indexical of the individual within the parameters and barriers of its space. The photograph may not represent the individual, but rather the image becomes a separate entity entirely. Sontag describes photography for the way it is able to handle the present and preserve the past as an index in the systemic adaptation of classification and storage through family photographs.

Sontag argues that the camera becomes a form of supervision, as highly acclaimed surveillance by producing an artifact of reality; as “miniature realities” the image becomes a piece of the world is it contained within. (Sontag 4) By converting subject into an image, photography gives shape to the transient experience. The image is used to represent a possession of space in a physical world. (Sontag 9) As a record of time, the camera captures the evolution of a subject in a moment of time. As Sontag theorizes: “photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal.” (Sontag 9) She continues by saying, “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” (Sontag 15) Once the photograph is concluded, the moment is immortalized and as a result, the image is already turned into the past. It is this changeable nature of time that photography ultimately challenges.

Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, shot in 1989, displays Mann’s children at eye level, posed standing in front of the camera facing the lens. The image captures the children from the waist up; while all three remain topless, the viewer is able to see Emmett’s bottoms. Despite this, they are left unaware as to if Jessie and Virginia are clothed below the waist. Emmett stands in the centre while Virginia to the left of the frame and Jessie to the right. Virginia is shown with her hands on her hips and chest turned towards the lens while Jessie stands with her arms crossed and chest turned away from the camera. The background remains out of focus, as the three children contain expressions of confidence and pride. Mann writes in Hold Still of the split second this image was taken and the ways in which their body language and facial expressions had been perceived negatively. As an outward view onto the work begins to “mistake photography for reality”, (Mann 151) Mann explains the photographic image “excludes aspects of the moment’s complexity”. (Mann 151) While the image contains a single moment in light, time, and space, the result remains as evidence of a death of that moment.

In 2015, Mann released an article in the New York Times whereby she addresses the ethical concerns of critics over the seemingly abundant child nudity documented in her series. While addressing her children as “actors” whom she merely photographs, she reiterates the distinction between real and image – private and public – through the ephemerality of a single moment in space and time now immortalized. Mann writes, “These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph”, (Mann 151) to discuss the misplaced aggression towards the children themselves, as such images remain as appropriations of their bodies at a single moment in time. By creating a sense of nostalgia and hints of a separate world of childhood, Mann uses ambiguity to focus on the fears of the viewers. She used the camera as a separation between herself and her children, capturing a single moment – “a thirteenth of a second” (Mann 152) as the photographic process becomes an immortalization of their physical forms. Mann uses the lens to create a significant difference from who they continue to exist as after the image: the children documented are not who they remain to be. The photograph is merely an appropriated representation of what stands before the lens.

Ariella Azoulay writes in her essay Photography: The Ontological Question (2011) of the roles in the event of photography, as described as “the event that occurs in relation to the camera or in relation to its hypothetical presence.” (Azoulay 77) As to revise the notion of photography beyond mere technology: the event of photography relays the act before and after the image is taken. By taking, showing, and suggesting that the camera may be present, Azoulay argues that the camera holds a position of power over the event, whether or not an image is taken. In contrast to this exists the photographed event, as written as “the event that occurs in relation to the photograph or in relation to its hypothetical existence.” (Azoulay 77) This is to represent what is depicted in a photograph; the image produced, as to analyze and understand the camera’s presence.

The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, displayed Emmett standing nude, waist deep in a lake with the shoreline, trees, and rocks behind him. He is centred within the composition, facing the camera with his body turned slightly to the left of the frame, as his hands are on the surface of the water away from his body. Emmett glares upwards towards the lens, while the reflections of the trees on the lake mimic his body, as well as how his body and arms disrupt the flow of water. Mann writes in Hold Still of the process of capturing the image, through reshooting the scene continuously as a means of processing a fear she had of losing her child. She writes of using photography to confront her own fears as a way of getting closer to seeing them. (Mann 118) As a staged sequence of “considerable effort and multiple tries”, (Mann 127) the final image becomes a contrived visual representation of the “exorcise[d] trauma of the experience.” (Mann 118)

Mann writes in her memoir Hold Still (2015) of the distinction between images and her children, stating: “these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper silvered out of time”, (Mann 151) acknowledging a separation created by the lens. While often staging photographs in which “replay situations that had arisen” (Mann 155) or those that already existed, “asking everyone to hold still.”, (Mann 128) Mann writes that “children cannot be forced to make pictures like these; mine gave them to me.” (Mann 126) She continues by writing: “It is difficult to say exactly who makes the pictures. Some are a gift to me from my children.” (Mann 126) As a result, the images become a collaboration, the children act in active roles within the event of photography, willing to give themselves to the lens.

Sally Mann defines her work Immediate Family as a “question of innocence, threat, fear, and sensuality, calling attention to the limitations of widely held views on childhood and motherhood.” (Mann 153) While existing under the parameters of Roland Barthes’ theory of flat death, Mann’s use of the camera functions as immortalization: a witness for death. As an artifact of reality, the image maintains a sense of privacy. While an image does not hold the capacity to be indexical of the children before the lens, Mann upholds a distinction between real and image. The result contrives a false reality contained within the stillness of its own materiality.

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