It's been 15 years since Sally Mann published "Immediate Family," and the best testament to this 56-year-old Virginia photographer's talent is that the pictures in her book are as arresting now as they were when first published. These frank views of childhood are beguiling, indelible and as unsettling as they ever were. The children in the pictures—Mann's two daughters and her son, all now grown—are not shown doing anything wrong or evil, but their poses discomfit us all the same. There is both innocence and knowingness in these children. This is not the world before the Fall or after, but a world where no Fall exists—or always existed. Which makes the pictures sound a lot creepier than they are.
In fact, what Mann was seeking, with the willing participation of her young subjects, was an honest record of childhood and growing up. But what she recognized from the start of her project was that nothing about childhood is uncomplicated. It's not the knowing but the uncertainty, on the part of children and adults, that most distinctively marks this territory. The first picture Mann took in the series, "Damaged Child," shows a little girl who looks beaten, when in fact she has been badly bitten by gnats. But the viewer, with only the visual evidence on display, is left to wonder exactly what is going on. For all its absurd clarity—and every picture in the sequence is a marvel of composition and printing—this photograph nails our inability to ever know the whole truth about, well, about anything, but certainly about childhood first and last.
At NEWSWEEK's invitation, Mann and her daughter Virginia toured the photographic exhibition "Family Pictures" currently being displayed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. There they talked about the pictures in "Immediate Family," several of which are exhibited in the Guggenheim show.