Public/Private Tensions in the Photography of Sally Mann [notes]

Parsons, S., (2008) Public/Priavte Tensions in the Photography of Sally Mann. [online]. Routledge. Available from: [Accessed on 4th October 2015 at 14:52].

Mann started photographing her 3 children (2 daughters 1 son) in 1984, with a vintage large format camera

“an analysis of the disturbance caused by Immediate Family photographs” pg 1

“In 1989, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego exhibited selections from both At Twelve and ‘Family Pictures: A Work in Progress’ (as Immediate Family was known before its publication as a book). Even the most positive reviews keyed into the sexualized tensions within At Twelve and in the not dissimilar images of Mann’s own, much younger children.”

Because Mann’s children will now be adults a lot of the concern for their safety has subsided.

The series was circulated in exhibitions as a book and reprinting

“The circulation of the Immediate Family project provides a rich opportunity to examine how notions of public and private are constantly and importantly constructed and dismantles by photographers and viewers” pg 2

In Mann’s images her children often appear naked, nearly naked, sometimes injured, confrontational or flirtatious. Which most parents experience, but would not capture, and definitely publish or circulate. Some of the images are staged, others are candid/spontaneous.

Mann does not explicitly claim to challenge the idea of the nuclear family album (only semi public between family and friends). But Sarah Parsons (author) argues that the series Immediate Family does so.

The series works as a window into the photographers domestic life, including the people that live there, the spaces and the practices in that environment. Even though we know that Mann has created this narrative, we cannot ignore the fact that the main focus is her children, and the fact they are pictured at home, which we see as a very private space.

Manns images represent a private space, but in order to realise that private space the images needed to be publicly circulated.

Mann attempted to control some of the circulation of the series. Before she published the book she consulted the Federal prosecutor, who advised that if she were publish the book she may be arrested.

In 1991, she deciding to postpone the publishing of her images within that series. “I thought the book could wait 10 years, when the kids won’t be living in the same bodies. They’ll have matured and they’ll understand the implications of the pictures. I unilaterally decided.”pg 4

The childrens parents arranged for them to see a psychologist to make sure they could say their opinions and understand the implications of the images being published. The children also had control of what images were included in the series.

“she has asked bookstores in the area not to sell it and libraries to confine it to rare-book rooms.” pg 4

pg 4 “mann still defends her work on moral grounds, but she also insisted on her right to tell her own story about family, including motherhood, ‘without shame’.”

“Immediate Family can also be read as an ambivalent meditation on motherhood and the overwhelming responsibilities and risk for which most mothers feel completely unprepared”

pg 5 One British writer (Nicci Gerrard) compares the girl in the image ‘Wet Bed’ to a prostitute “with her lover just departed not like a little girl, fast asleep, who has just wet her bed.”

Another writer suggest Manns work is a “gory mess” (Sarah Boxer)

But the writer says that the writer “sounds like a disconnected parent or a childless adult…and probably the person who complains constantly about people who bring their children to restaurants and museums.”

Some viewers find that the way Mann captures the children in the photographs is dangerous. As she beautifies the real physical and emotional pain of the children, which belittles though feelings.

The writer talks about how she relates to the maternal gaze that Mann shows. And says “When i look at the ‘Wet Bed’, I could come up with one hundred associations before arriving at prostitute.


Overall this paper is very useful and insightful, the writer explains and explores both sides of the argument. She explains why Mann’s work creates controversy, and how as a photographer Mann challenged that. The writer also explained the view points of well-written critics, and formed arguments against them, from her own opinion and from other writers/critics. This means that the paper was balanced overall as the writer explored both arguments. Also its very clear about Mann’s work, what she did, why this caused/fixed problems within publishing her work.


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