The idea for this blog began with a certain synchronicity of life events last spring and began to jell as I read several novels which used photographs as story details and photographers as characters. One of those novels was Dani Shapiro’s Black & White. Shapiro crafts a story about the relationship between a mother and her daughter – the mother, Ruth Dunne, a photographer whose fame is based on a series of photographs she’d done of her then prepubescent daughter, Clara. It’s a story about identity, where the boundaries between the roles of being a mother and an artist are blurred, and about the effects of those photographs on the daughter who struggles to maintain her own identity separate from her role as a model for her mother’s fine art photographs. The novel opens as Clara, now an adult living in Maine with her husband and their young teenage daughter, learns that her mother, who she has not seen in fourteen years, is gravely ill. Clara reluctantly goes back to her childhood home in New York City to see Ruth Dunne.
The narrative explores the function of memory in a very engaging way, the voice lending a current of authority just below the surface of the story. I’m fascinated by how photographs, particularly those frozen glances back through time which end up preserved between the pages of family photo albums, become incorporated into memory – when the facts of those images can be as unreliable as memory itself. For instance, do we remember the event or do we remember the photographs of the event that we grew up looking at in the family album? Those images begin to take on a history and story of their own. In Black & White, Shapiro writes: “Impossible to isolate a memory: to carve it out and separate it from what has come before or after, from what has been told and retold. Stories turn what we remember into a series of polished little gems.”
It was impossible for me to read Black & White without thinking of the photographs of real life photographer Sally Mann, who did a series of images of her three children in the 1980s. The photographs were exhibited and then published in 1992 as Immediate Family. Mann’s work was controversial and drew harsh criticism from those who believed she was exploiting her children. Her work made people uncomfortable, particularly the sexuality of the nudes.
I contacted Shapiro to ask her if the photographs in Mann’s Immediate Family had an influence on her in writing Black and White. She responded: “I was very much influenced, when thinking about the novel, by the work of Sally Mann and by my different responses to her work over the years, especially after I became a mother.”
This response intrigued me since my own reaction to Mann’s photographs is very mixed. The images are technically gorgeous, the subject matter often provocative, and her photographic eye bold. But many of the images of the children are disturbing: surreal yet earthy, feral, intimate, suggestive but not pornographic – although some of the images come uncomfortably close to that edge.
I asked Dani about what ways her own responses to Mann’s work changed and how being a mother affected the way she viewed Mann’s photographs. She responded: “I first encountered Sally Mann’s photographs when I was in my twenties. I was very taken with her work 'Immediate Family.' I found it evocative, provocative, quite stirring. In fact, I very much wanted to own a photograph of hers, but couldn’t afford one. The images stayed with me, and though I saw other work of Mann’s over the years, I found 'Immediate family' to be her strongest. Then I encountered the photographs again, in my late thirties, as the mother of a young child. And though the images had the same impact on me as they always had, there was an additional, somewhat uncomfortable layer to my response. I realized I was asking the question: how were these pictures taken? It occurred to me, as it never had before, that the photographs were posed, staged, lit. I wanted to know how it had happened. How the mother, Mann, had asked her children to pose. So I answered those questions the only way I could – by writing a novel and imagining those scenes myself.”
In Mann’s work, there seems to be an undertone of defiance not only in the subjects, but also in the photographer. In the later photographs of the “Immediate Family” series which was done over several years, the children are at the edge of innocence, at the edge of childhood, seeming to play at the role of pretending – pretending to play dress-up, playing at innocence. These are not spontaneous or candid shots, but are set up and posed in exactly the right light. The images were shot with a large format camera, an 8 x 10 view camera, which involves a slow and tedious shooting process that requires a lot of set-up time to arrange and compose the subject in the frame. This is the type of camera which must be set up on a tripod and where the photographer looks at the image in the ground glass on the back of the camera under a dark cloth. Because exposure times can be long, subjects must remain very still to hold a pose for the camera, which means the children were full participants in making the photographs.
Dani Shapiro had been a child model herself, and she has written about this experience in her own nonfiction books and in articles such as the essay “Frame by Frame” for Vogue (June 2007). I asked Dani if that had an effect on how she viewed Mann’s work. She answered: “I’m not sure that being a child model affected the way I viewed Mann’s work, because really my modeling career – such as it was – was incredibly tame. I was the baby in the Beechnut Baby Food commercials, which of course I don’t remember. When I was three, I was the little girl on the Kodak Christmas poster, and I do remember the feeling that it was somehow important. I had some awareness that my picture was being taken and it was a big deal. Honestly, I never once consciously thought of that time while I was writing Black & White, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an impact.”
In the introduction to Immediate Family, Sally Mann writes: “These are photographs of my children. . . Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic, but most are ordinary things every mother has seen. I take pictures when they are bloodied or sick or angry. They dress up and posture, they paint their bodies, they dive like otters in the dark river.”
Hearing Mann talk about her photographs and seeing her at work, as shown in the documentary film “What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann,” is more interesting to me than viewing the actual photographs. What she says about her work adds a layer of understanding that allows me to look at them in a different way. Watching the film, I finally understood that she uses her camera to find answers to her questions (particularly her later work which explores death), in the same way that writers use words and narrative to find answers by crafting stories around their questions.
In Black & White, Shapiro explores questions about the impact of an artist’s work on family members, creates fictional characters that are believable and behave in compelling ways, and describes photographic images that read as real. The novel’s epigraph, which also serves as a fitting close for this post, quotes photographer Walker Evans: “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”