21 June 2010

Self-Censorship and the Uses of Discomfort

From: Immediate Family. Photograph © Sally Mann.

In The Guardian today this a review by Sean O'Hagan of a newly opened retrospective of work by Sally Mann. (You can find an earlier notice here.) Here are two interesting passages. The first addresses an early series of images Mann calls Immediate Family.
"It featured black and white images of her three children, often naked or partially naked, as they played and posed in the woods, lakes and rivers around her home in rural Virginia.

The images, some of which are on show here in the 59-year-old American's first British retrospective, are by turns beautiful, disturbing and unashamedly sensual. Perhaps more problematically, all of them are, to one degree or another, staged. [. . .]

"Many of these pictures are intimate, some fictions and some fantastic," Mann said of the series, "but most are ordinary things that every mother has seen." Well, maybe, but not every mother has restaged and then rendered them in such a darkly beautiful and ambiguous ways. Intriguingly, none of the more outrightly provocative photographs have found their way into this show, which is an edited version of a bigger retrospective exhibition that has already toured Europe. Whether this is down to lack of space or fear of public – or tabloid – outcry is anyone's guess, but one could argue that something has been lost in this excised version of the series: the sense that Mann is walking a tightrope between reflecting childhood sexuality in all its lack of self-consciousness and staging it in often dramatic reconstructions. This, in effect, is where the true power of her art lies.
I will give O'Hagan the benefit of the doubt here and assume he is simply being ironic. Of course the reason the "more provocative" images in the series are not being displayed is that the gallery and/or photographer anticipated public complaints. So, instead of censorship we get anticipatory reaction. If I don't show you the provocative images I won't have to worry about being forced to remove them from the show. In other words, the censors have done their work effectively before the exhibition is even mounted.

Here is the second passage, this one a typically hand-wringing worry about what we have a "right" to show or to see.

The other, even more disturbing series on show here is entitled What Remains (2000–04), which approaches death and dying head on. Mann gained access to the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Centre, a place that would not seem out of place in one of Chuck Palahniuk's darkly humorous short stories. Here, bodies that have been donated to science are left outside in the woods so that the process of organic decomposition can be studied by forensic scientists.

Mann's close-up images of these rotting corpses are not for the faint of heart, but, again, the prints – made by an old-fashioned chemical method called the wet-plate collodion process – have a Victorian feel that is almost painterly. One does, though, feel like a voyeur when looking at images such as this. They raise the ethical question of whether a person's decision to donate their body to science gives scientists the right, at a later date, to grant Mann permission to photograph that – decomposing – body. (And whether the result should then be displayed as art. )

From there O'Hagan quickly turns to the safe subject of photographic technique. Apparently it would be OK for a crime novelist to describe rotting corpses. And it is OK for forensic scientists to study them. And it is OK for us to watch the various CSI programs on television. But Mann's images (stylized as they are) are somehow beyond the pale?

Perhaps, I am wrong, but is O'Hagan here hinting that we ought to self-censor more than we already do? It is difficult to tell since he lauds Mann for her creativity and courage and seems to esteem her work despite "all the uncomfortable issues it raises." Doesn't Mann's work stand as an indictment of censorship and self-censorship? Doesn't it suggest that what we need is to see what photographers show and then engage in critical argument about where the bounds of taste and morality are located? Then photography can contribute in useful ways to self- and social and political exploration and discovery.

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