Look in almost anyone’s shoebox of family photos and you’ll find mostly smiles. Some real, some given on command. Kids standing like sticks in front of the cabin or Epcot Center. Days at the pool, days at the beach, birthday parties and Halloweens.
In the mid 1980s Sally Mann set out to photograph her children growing up. But she did something unusual. She consciously decided to include the ugly and awkward parts that many people want to exclude from their image of childhood. Bleeding noses, wet beds, black eyes, bad moods. Hints of vulnerability and danger.
Her collection, called Immediate Family, didn’t obsess with the disturbing parts of childhood. There are shots of goofing off, dressing up, and playing board games. But it’s obvious she made a point of including shots that suggest that childhood isn’t squeaky clean, that it’s also riddled with moments of awkwardness, shame, fear and confusion.
I couldn’t figure exactly what it was about these images that I loved so much, until I read what filmmaker Steven Cantor had said about them:
“I was so moved by Sally’s expression of childhood the way I remembered it — as a complex and enigmatic time — and not the innocent and naive period adults often project it to be.”
Yes! Bingo. Childhood isn’t simple at all, except to adults. It’s confusing and awesome, sometimes traumatic, sometimes dark, sometimes absurd.
Those typical shoebox photos cherrypick the sanitary moments and ignore the rest, as if only the light and easy parts have value. They suggest that kids spend their days playing because they don’t have to take anything seriously yet. But in reality kids explore and play because they need to learn about the world, fast. They need those black eyes and awful moments, and they need to have curiosity and low inhibitions to get them.
So if we’re going to take the value of childhood seriously, we can’t pretend it consists only of birthdays and school plays and trips to Grandma’s. Sally Mann saw that childhood play isn’t actually frivolous, it’s a vital learning process, and the unsettling parts of it are absolutely necessary. And because they are so vital, they’re beautiful too. Read More
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