Exercise: Mixed messages

Brief

Analyse the Sally Mann image below.

manncandy-cigarette.jpg
Candy Cigarette, 1989 © Sally Mann

This image is called Candy Cigarette. Does that influence your interpretation of the image? 

This was a highly controversial image in 1989 when it was produced. What do you think the reaction would be to it today?

Response

Using the portrait checklist first before a more freeform analysis:

  • Face: intense gaze, defiant expression – captures the seriousness with which the adolescent takes their confusing transition – or is she attempting to look ‘seductive’?
  • Pose/gesture: self-conscious; trying to look more grown-up by the way she holds the cigarette but also protecting herself with her other arm; the tousled hair carries a message of rebellion
  • Clothes: white dress, symbolising innocence
  • Props: the candy cigarette to enact adulthood and/or connote rebellion (of which more below)
  • Lighting: focused on central subject
  • Background: unfocused; path bending into distance, maybe connoting the journey between childhood and adulthood; child on stilts, maybe connoting a different way of enacting being ‘grown-up’
  • Meaning: ‘childhood lost’

This is the essence of adolescence in a photograph; acting older, trying on ‘grown-up’ poses; cigarette to connote rebellion – from the point of view of the mother taking it, I read it as a sorrow at how quickly children grow up, or want to grow up

Taking a wider view of the image: the dynamic of the three children together is significant, I think. The other two are facing the other way (down a ‘different path’) and adopt more obviously child-like poses, and so the central figure is positioning herself in opposition to them by both where she faces and how she stands. She is in sharp focus (the here and now) while they are to different degrees unfocused, dreamlike (the past).

The watch on her right wrist stands out to me as incongruous for someone of her age; it speaks of being conscious of passing time.

The title of Candy Cigarette does significantly change the reading. Without that the viewer’s assumption is of a real cigarette, and that leads to a darker interpretation of real rebellion, and/or of irresponsible parenting. With a real cigarette the viewer invests into the picture an imagined past and future, making it much more shocking – especially as the photographer is her mother; it would represent a dereliction of maternal care to not only photograph it but to publish it.

With the information that the cigarette is fake the reading becomes more melancholic than shocking; it’s a sorrow felt on how children feel the need to grow up so quickly, the rush to adulthood overtaking the enjoyment of childhood.

Would it be any more controversial in 2016 than in 1989? I don’t know; sometimes it feels like society is getting more progressive and understanding of nuances of meaning, and other times it feels like we swing back to over-protection and puritanism. Reading about Sally Mann and how she took images of her children throughout their childhood, and got accused of sexually exploiting them by photographing them naked, I sense that an adolescent appearing to smoke a cigarette is the least of her ‘transgressions’ of good taste…

Sources

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/magazine/the-disturbing-photography-of-sally-mann.html (accessed 23/06/2016)

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