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Posted on October 11, 2012 by Emilia Garcia Romeu

I first heard of Sally Mann ( by the mid-1990s, when I was at school in the U.S. At that time, she was famous for having outraged the general public with photographs of her own children. It was no small thing: Mann was accused of abusing her kids and even Artforum refused to publish her photographs. That’s why her name popped up in class every time we dealt with art, sexuality, and censorship.  In this controversy, I was ready to side with Mann: Both series, Immediate family (1984-1991) and Family color (1990-1991), portray her kids at absolute ease, wild in action and indolent when not, as lazy and comfortable in their own skins as cats in the sun. For me, there is such a distinctive atmosphere of intimacy and candor that obscenity (overexposure, exhibitionism, abuse) is simply out of the question. It is true that these children are depicted in extreme situations (i.e. injured and bleeding) and mostly naked, like savages in nature and culture, but that’s probably the beauty of it.

Almost twenty years later, La Fábrica (Madrid) presents At Twelve (1983-1985). Equally controversial at the time, it is composed of 35 b/w, beautiful images of 12-year-old-girls. These young women are photographed in their own surroundings, either alone or with parents and siblings, looking straight into the viewer’s eyes. They are literally half-child / half-adult, their bodies being still in the making, their poses showing, at once, awareness and ignorance of their newly acquired sexuality.

 I am surprised at how uncomfortable I feel in front of these photographs. I find them somehow sinister and a bit perverse. And yet, everyday we are literally bombarded by images of teenagers, right? In the last decades, adolescence has been portrayed by numerous artists, such as Rineke Dijkstra, Inez van Lamsweerde, Anna Gaskell, or Sue De Beer. And, of course, there is Disney channel, a factory of com modified, over-sexualized teen-agers who are ever more pervasive. So, what’s the fuss?

 Mann’s oeuvre has a certain feeling of melancholy, mystery, and decay; some sense of desolation and pending tragedy. At Twelve is no exception. There are signs of violence and neglect everywhere: the dead cattle surrounding one girl, a blood stain on a blanket; a menacing faceless figure emerging from the dark; a girl lying on an old car… But I also feel these photographs are somehow dishonest and do get the impression that the girls are definitely overexposed and manipulated. For Mann is withholding something from them, she knows something they don’t: their incredible vulnerability, the hostility of their environment, and that their passage into womanhood will certainly come at a price.

 In 1988, Aperture published a book on the series. At Twelve: Portraits of young women includes an essay by Ann Beattie as well as short comments on the sitters by Sally Mann. In contrast with the book’s rather innocuous essay, Mann’s short texts make reference to a rather gloomy reality: a girl getting pregnant at eleven; a man getting shot (in the face) for harassing her step-daughter, children living in the back seat of a car… These are the stories Mann chose for illustrating this series and I feel it is as much about gender as it is about class. I also realize At Twelve is not merely about adolescence. It is about the violence that becoming a woman imply in certain contexts. Within this framework, it is hard for me to accept, or even tolerate, an image like the one with the “headless girl” in white shorts, a mere crotch leaning on a wall. It makes me sad. Maybe I am a moralist, but I feel Mann has cheated on these girls.

Until November, 17

La Fábrica, Madrid