At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women
by Sally Mann
I have a son who is twelve and I am a portrait photographer, so I thought that I would feel right at home in the world of Sally Mann. At the very least, I expected Mann's world to look familiar. I expected to see girls like the girls my son goes to school with (and whom I photograph). Since Sally Mann lives in Lexington, Virginia, I realized I would probably have to allow for some regional variation. What I anticipated was a somewhat southern version of my neighborhood kids.
Alas, I was way off base. The twelve-year-old girls I know are absolutely nothing like the girls in Mann's portraits. But the girls Mann selected to photograph do seem familiar, and the images do have a familiar "look". I finally figured it out: the Calvin Klein "look," not the hearty Esprit or Benetton "look" I was expecting and prefer. (I apologize for defining these clearly "art" images in terms of mega-advertising images, but the reference seems so apt and concrete.) The sexuality and boredom - and hint of danger - that I associate with the Calvin Klein-Brooke Shields advertisements of a couple of years ago are omnipresent in these images.
But the eminent writer, psychiatrist and photography critic, Robert Coles, sees them quite otherwise. His jacket notes tell us that "These photographs offer a subtle and knowing visual statement about that most poignant and vulnerable time, when girls become women." The operative phrase is "when girls become women." These 36 portraits are Mann's vision of what girls are like, what they look like, and perhaps how they feel, when they "become women." Her narrow vision seems to focus on latent seduction or blatant sexuality - take your pick. It is a vision of young women that I think of as male (and very much like a lot of other contemporary art and commercial photography).
The cover portrait epitomizes Mann's approach. Called "Sherry and Sherry's grandmother both at twelve years old," it is an image of a large tintype of the grandmother resting on a garden chair while the granddaughter stands beside the garden chair. Only her body, from her breasts to her knees, appears in the picture. No head. Does the young Sherry look at all like her grandmother, who has piercing eyes and politely crossed hands? Does the young Sherry have her grandmother's marvelous crown of hair? We will never know. The suggestive body is more interesting to Mann than the family resemblances or the character of the young girl.
Several of the portraits are unfriendly, unsympathetic and unloving. It surprises me that a woman made this collection at all. Not that the eye is gendered - but Mann has the advantage over male photographers of knowing what it was like to be a twelve-year-old girl. In fact, the frontispiece of the book is a portrait of her at twelve. It is also distressing to me that this particular view of how "girls become women," all sullen and sultry, should be as widely applauded as a profound vision as this collection has been - and that its author should be rewarded by prestigious fellowships ranging from the National Endowment for the Arts to the Guggenheim Foundation. That these images can be accepted without controversy or discussion says a lot about the image of women in media.
Then there is a class and economic bias to the portraits that makes me uncomfortable. The girls all live in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Mann explains that she had access to the girls and their families because her father was an established obstetrician and delivered thousands of babies there during his long medical practice. But most of the girls are clearly well-off and well-cared-for: the six or seven who are obviously poor look out of place. If Mann included them to be "representative," why is her sample so skewed? And why did she choose to make portraits of the poorer girls in such a way that their economic disadvantage is an inherent part of their portrait? They are defined by it, as if to suggest that what is interesting is not their individual charisma but their bleak situation and the overtones of violence and sexuality that Mann associates with it.
There are only three portraits of black girls: one is with her infant; one is beside her grandmother's laundry line (we're told her mother has abandoned her) and the third appears headless because the leaves of a tree obscure her whole head:
I saw her eye there, peeking at me through a tiny chink in the foliage - cautious, the only sign of a child's curiosity. She had come out of her apartment dressed as if she were on her way to a job interview. I was confounded by her reserve and composure. I couldn't imagine what picture I would take midday, midsummer, of this girl more woman than I... We did not speak. She stood absolutely still, only the veiled eye shifting in the still heat. (p. 32)
Whether the girls are rich or poor, the photographer allowed no evidence of the fun in their lives to creep into her portraits of them. There are no cats or dogs. No records. No soccer balls. No favorite ancient dolls. No Walkmans. No beloved books.
Mann describes her manipulative approach in stories like this one:
In the early fall, I drank coffee with several generations of the Conner family, the close air of their kitchen settling across my shoulders like a shawl. I explained what I was doing and, as so often happened, their initial suspicion gave way gradually to caution and then to curiosity and guarded acceptance. They agreed that I could photograph Kelly. At dawn on the first day of hunting season they called when the deer were beheaded and hung. As I set up the camera, Kelly appeared, buttoned up, accompanied by her mother, her aunt and uncle, her grandparents, cousins and a few other family members. Arrayed behind me, they remained watchful and intent. As I pulled her jacket back, to separate her white-shirted figure from the darkness of the shed, I thought I might have heard a murmur. After a few minutes I relaxed enough to identify the prevalence of the V shapes in the scene and without thinking I asked Kelly to spread her legs. This time the murmur was audible, but I see that the picture was complete. (P. 38)