Thursday, April 30, 2015

Amnesia Vivace

Back in the early days of B one of the first posts I wrote was an open inquiry about a photo I'd seen somewhere. I couldn't remember the source, so I asked for help. This was back when I would write short posts every day no matter how inane, like this lost photo alert:

It only took eight years but someone finally dug up the source. Federico Rubio in Uruguay sent me a note last week telling me to look in Sally Eauclaire's New Color / New Work (Abbeville, 1984). I pulled out the book and sure enough there it was, the photo I'd been wondering about all these years. To tell the truth I'd forgotten all about it. But Bingo anyway.

New Color / New Work (photo by Federico Rubio)
As the original post suggests, this photo lives a hermetic existence. As far as I can tell it only exists in this one place, tucked away in an old book. It's not in any other monographs by Meyerowitz, including Cape Light and Redheads which he was compiling contemporaneously. I don't think it belongs to any print collections. It doesn't exist online. If it weren't for Euaclaire, all public evidence of the photo might vanish. And I'm guessing that would be fine with Meyerowitz, because the subject matter is sensitive. It shows his daughter Ariel naked, wearing knee-high disco boots, and standing happily on a shore wall. She looks about 12. 

Ariel Meyerowitz is now an art dealer. I have no idea what she thinks of the photo now, but I'm guessing she is just as happy to have it remain out of circulation. So I won't post here. But if you want to see it, look in your copy of Euaclaire, page 166. If you don't have that book, please buy it already. Heck, buy the trilogy. It's an essential reference.

People say things live online forever, and it's often true. But in this case it's the opposite. This photo has no online presence. It's been preserved only in physical form. It's an ironic twist and a reminder of the long tail of history. Only 10 to 15 percent of published books are still in print. Recorded music has a similar legacy, as do human beings. Only 6.5 percent humanity's history is alive today. The past contains most of what's been created. Sometimes it clings to material quite tightly, offering it to the present in unpredictable chunks. 

That's a potential problem for children posing nude. Maybe Ariel Meyerowitz was fine with her photo as a kid. Maybe she no longer likes it. Or perhaps the opposite of both presumptions is true. Either way it's not going to disappear so long as copies of that book are out there. In the Internet age most people are aware that potentially compromising images can linger and are generally circumspect about what goes online. But back in 1984 the photo world was more naive. It could be compartmentalized and nerdified, and not many outsiders were tuned in. A nude photo of a kid might be exhibited one month, or tucked in a book, then pass into history unnoticed or unremarked. Or so people imagined.

Few people are more aware of these issues than Sally Mann, whose children are the main subject of Immediate Family. If you don't have that book, please buy it already. A new edition is about to be released and copies should be easy to find. "It is to photography what William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor are to Southern fiction," writes Mike Johnston, and I'm with him. I consider it a landmark, and, as with many such books, it wasn't published without controversy. Only a small portion of the photos showed nude children by they were enough to get folks excited. No, I'm not talking about those folks. Forget the sickos. I'm talking about general prudish society. Immediate Family's initial publication in 1992 created an uproar and sent Mann's life through the public ringer, along with her children. Perhaps seeking to head off attention raised by the new edition, her extraordinary essay a few weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine (presumably excerpted from her memoir Hold Still due out May 12th) discussed the book at length and put the photo world on alert. Not only was she a world class photographer. She was a damned good writer and very thoughtful parent. And, like some of her best photos, she was invigorated by her flaws. 

I read the Times article with great interest because I too shoot my kids, sometimes in potentially embarrassing or disturbing situations, and sometimes nude. Childhood includes a healthy dose of all three, at least in my home. It's not a kid smiling with a puppy. To me it looks more like two boys throwing rocks at their helpless younger brother. I find that interesting, so I've documented my family along with most other things around me. And like Mann I've wrestled with what to do with these photographs. I don't mean to put myself in her class as a photographer —although one of my sons is named Emmett— but I think all parent/photographers face similar questions of consent, publicity, our sometimes conflicting roles as parent and photographer, and how all of these factors might change over the course of all our lifetimes. And good parenting is sort of like good photography. Neither one usually offers clear answers.
Woodward Cover Story, 9/27/92

Mann might say her troubles started with Richard Woodward's essay on Immediate Family. That was the review that galvanized national attention, some positive and some negative. But what about her decision to create the book in the first place? All parents photographs their kids. Very few put them in books. She could've stored the photos in a box or album, but with the step to public authorship Mann consciously thrust her children into the spotlight. 

It was a big step and I think that decision weighed on her. Maybe it still does. She expressed ambivalence at the time, initially choosing not to publish the photos. According to the Woodward article it was the kids who changed her mind, demanding that she reconsider. And so she did. But even as she proceeded to publication it was with the expectation — false hope?—  that the book would have minimal distribution. This was 1992, before the Internet, and it was still possible for photographs to vanish without a trace. Many photo books were market flops. Her previous book had taken a decade to sell through its run. With luck maybe this one would fade quickly into the out-of-print bins. She even hoped to keep it out of Lexington bookstores and confined to the rare-book room of the local library. 

Basically I think Mann suspected she was about to unleash Pandora's box and was torn about the way forward. She fantasized about having it both ways. By shoving the book aside after publication she could gain the accomplishment of a major monograph while sheltering her vulnerable subjects. Or so she imagined. But that dream was more cognitive dissonance than reality. The book did not disappear quickly. It became a breakout hit and made Mann's reputation. In some ways that was the best and the worst possible outcome.

In her recent essay, Mann seems to deflect partial responsibility for publication onto her children. Her kids were "visually sophisticated, involved in setting the scene..., and in editing them...I gave each child the pictures of themselves and asked them to remove those they didn't want published." I agree they share some of the burden for what followed. But it's an open question if young children can understand the dynamics of that situation or give informed consent. Most kids want to see their faces on TV. A book? Sure. Great. It might exciting at the time but they may not be thinking about how those images are perceived in 30 years, or how they might come to define their identity. 

For me it's similar to the issues faced by parents of Hollywood child-stars. At what point does a child gain decision making power over their life, image, and identity? I'm sure Mann has thought long and hard about these questions, as have the parents of Shirley Temple, Harry Shearer, Fred Savage, Macaulay Culkin, etc, not to mention Richard Woodward. Sometimes it works out fine for child actors. Sometimes it doesn't. What's the best answer? Damned if I know. 

Jessie's Cut, 1985, Sally Mann

Mann's internal logic was to separate her roles as mother and photographer. "Taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering," she writes, and several images in Immediate Family support her. To shoot a bloody nose, a wet bed, or your daughter being stitched in the hospital requires a remove from maternal instinct, or at least an objectification of it. "The fact is that these [pictures] are not my children," she wrote recently. "They are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind, and shade." 

It's the old photographic credo: A photograph does not equal reality. I get it. But untangling the roles of mother and photographer is not as simple as she lets on. If it were, then it would be no trouble to splash a photo of your youngest on the cover of Aperture. After all it's just an image, not a child, right? And if the Wall Street journal later came along and drew crude bars across its bare flesh, they'd be doing to it a photo not a person. But Mann's infuriated reaction suggests she knows the line is not so clean. People in photographs feel the weight of being represented. And when it's a kid that weight can be unpredictable

How might that weight might change over time? For me that's the $64,000 question. "What [will] Emmett, Jessie and Virginia think about these photographs and about their mother, if not this fall, then in 5, 10, or 15 years?" asked Woodward in 1992. It's now 23 years later and by most accounts the photographs have had little negative impact on them. The Mann kids are well adjusted young adults. They like the book. But how could Mann know that at the time? An interesting comparison is to Larry Rivers, whose nude photographs of his young children became a torment to them later, causing real emotional damage and endless legal headaches. The photo of Ariel Meyerowitz mentioned earlier is another example. Or the case of Michael Northrup, whose wife consented to his photographs of her as they were made, but later opposed their publication. 

The future is uncertain for everyone, but with kids even more so. All directions are open. They go through incredible changes on the way to adulthood. Who knows how they'll think of the photos later? Shooting children is fraught with moral hazards. Mann has negotiated them probably as well as anyone could hope, but that doesn't negate the fact they're there.

I'm glad Immediate Family came out when it did. I don't think a book like that could be published today as original material. It came during the only cultural window available to ti. As Mike Johnston notes, the book seems more like a capstone to the 1970s than an influence on what would follow. I think that nostalgic feel, which keyed on Mann's own childhood —"The land was still wild where I grew up, a feral child running naked with the pack"— was responsible for some of its success. I can relate. My childhood in 1970s felt pretty similar. On hot summer days, a mass of local hippies would gather at the pond or river. Everyone stripped their clothes and swam naked, adults and kids together. No one thought twice. It was idyllic but that world is gone. When Mann asks, "How bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark?" it roots her work firmly in the past. Not only would kids be wearing suits now, they'd likely eschew riverplay for screentime. 

Napalm Girl, April 30th, 1975, Nick Ut

By 1992 the spark of the seventies had been snuffed and the culture wars were heating up.  Nudity was politicized, and Immediate Family became a touchstone for broader preconceptions. But as prudish as society was in 1992, it's become even more vigilant now with regard to the privacy of children. A casual photo-op of unknown kids nowadays is enough to spark World War III. Could Nick Ut get a candid nude of a crying girl published today? I'm not many papers would be brave or foolish enough.

That's a good thing in some ways, since images can sometimes proliferate in unwanted directions. But the flip side is that helicopter parenting has eliminated an entire category of images from our visual culture. We see virtually no nude photographs of children in books, magazines, or newspapers today. They're certainly not on TV or film or social media. The one outlet in which they might be shown and rationally interpreted, fine art photography, has largely eliminated them as subject matter. Alain Laboille is an exception, along with a few others. But looking back now, 1992 seems like the glory days. An alien observing earth now through satellite signals might wonder, do children here posses skin or bodies? But forget aliens. The more pressing problem is future humans. They're sure to wonder too, and also about what other categories might be missing.

The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, Sally Mann

I'll leave that for future generations to decide. Personally I'm mostly done shooting nude kids. My children are older now and they no longer roam naked as they once did. They're usually clothed, and they'd generally rather not be photographed at all. I often get a hand in front of my lens or a back turned toward me or an "Oh, dad" sigh. Whatever. I was a preteen kid once. I know parents can be irritating. So that project's window has probably closed. I'm guessing Sally Mann faced a similar situation as her kids grew older. The title of her photograph "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude," suggests an ending point, capped by his defiant gaze.

Not the last time Emmett modeled nude, 2008

I'm done making those photos. But now what? In one way I'm just like all parents. I'm sitting on a large stash of unseen kid pictures. But it's with the extra caveat and possibly deluded notion that others might find them interesting. Forget the subject for a moment. I feel strongly about some as unique photographs, just as I'm sure Sally Mann felt strongly about hers. But I'm less confident than her about the decision to release them into the world. There are a few —maybe my favorites?— I'm certain I'll never show anyone beyond immediate family. Some are nudes. Others might be embarrassing in other ways. I think photographs which pry a subject open lay it bare are often the best, and by that logic some of these are quite good. But to pry open and expose my kids? Hmmm. 

In the end I'm left I'm hemming and hawing, and admiring Mann's fortitude. To release her photos into the world couldn't have been easy. But she did, and I've been enjoying them very much since.


Stan B. said...

I always thought The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude ranks as one of the greatest photographs of all time, a ridiculous statement, perhaps- which doesn't make it any the less "true."

Strange, how so many of the best photographs (ie - art) suspend you in a state of absolute wonder while making you cringe (just a tad) all the same. Whether it's a Mann, a Gilden or a Piss Christ almighty himself.

Unknown said...

Fellow Oregonian here. This is an interesting topic and the subject of children in photography in general has been on my mind lately.

I'm speaking in terms of Street Photography or any type of natural, uncontrolled photography. For me, children bring qualities to a photograph that nothing and nobody else can.

Unfortunately, it's becoming unaccepted to photograph children in public and even displaying your own children's photos that don't look like normal family snapshots would probably turn some of heads.

I really wonder how much children in photography has gone down in comparison to the past, outside of studio type work.

Marilyn Andrews said...

A corollary to the quandary you wrote about is the work of Dianne Arbus,because she photographed and published images of many who had the innocence & naivete of children -

When the boys become adults, I think they will be grateful that you have captured parts of their childhood - a childhood is a useful tool to remember -

Julian Behrisch Elce said...

An excellently written, nuanced, and balanced piece. I think that a crucial moment is the decision to publish; then one ought to balance the value of the picture against the value of the subject.

Federico Rubio said...

Glad to have helped trigger this post, Blake.

I immediately, mentally proposed “cultural climate change" to explain for the disappearance of that picture (what was permissible then, does not seem any longer, etc.) But I completely missed out on an obvious point that is part of the equation and of the cultural change itself, and that you bring up brilliantly in your article: the advent of the internet and the impossibility in this age to do the magician’s trick of disappearing an image that might be problematic or oversensitive.

Sally Mann’s recent writing in the NYT, which I had not been aware of at the time of my ruminations, is amazing. Thanks for that link.