Exercise: Mixed Messages
Sally Mann (born 1951) was named America’s best photographer by Time magazine in 2001. Her early work included black and white images of her own children which caused a degree of controversy, especially those images in which they adopted ‘adult’ poses, like the 1989 image below.
This is a more challenging image than any you’ve been asked to analyse previously because of the interplay between the young subject and the adult pose. As before, go through the various elements of the photograph one by one and note down how they contribute to the meaning that you take from the image – whatever that is. For example, you might think that Mann is deliberately challenging conventional attitudes to the portrayal of children or that she’s commenting on the child’s transition to adulthood.
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?
Make notes in your learning log or blog. It might be interesting to go on the student forum and find out what other students have made of this image.
|Pose/gesture||3 poses.Main character: 45° to camera, right arm across body hand under left arm, left hand holding cigarette arm bent at elbow, world-weary facial expression.Second character: 45° to camera back turned, fists on hips, frustrated/angry. Third character: back to camera on stilts.|
|Clothes||Main character: White halter neck summer dress, wristwatch. Second character: Dark sleeveless dress. Third character: White T-shirt, mid-tone shorts.|
|Props||Main character: Cigarette, wristwatch.Second character: None.Third character: Stilts.|
|Background||Road and trees.|
|Meaning||Children apparently at play, main character pose aping adult world-weary stance with a cigarette caught between childhood and adolescent, growing-up too quickly, wants to be an adult too soon, learning to smoke, conferred sophistication, second character aping adult pose when berating child, childlike impersonation of an adult, third character behaving as a child.|
Although Mann says the cigarette is a sweet, the intention of the child is to be adult and enjoy the apparent sophistication that comes from smoking, whether or not it is a sweet or not has no effect on the meaning that’s being portrayed. The second character could well be taking her cue from the main character and aping the stance of an angered or frustrated adult, whilst the third character is presumably oblivious to either of the other two, concentrating on walking on stilts and therefore adopting a natural posture for a child under those circumstances.
The reaction today of the inferred meanings would depend on which generation the observer belongs to. Anyone born before 1970 would probably still be horrified that children could still get sweet cigarettes and most probably would assume it was a real one which would make them gasp at someone so young openly smoking in public. Post 1970 they probably wouldn’t know about sweet cigarettes and would naturally assume it was real, they wouldn’t be at all surprised but might be at them smoking in public.
Responding to Catherine’s last comment; my feelings are that it’s not that shocking to me. I remember when a Christmas gift of a ‘smokers tray’ of chocolate pipes and sweet cigarettes was the norm and an odd packet of sweet cigarettes during the year wasn’t unusual. To ape our elders was a natural form of play in the ’50’s and ’60’s, which children today probably wouldn’t dream of doing; outdoor play nowadays, when the children do have any, seems to have to include skateboards, scooters and powered toys rather than free-form play that I enjoyed as a child. I’m sure sociologists, and social workers particularly, would be very shocked at the content of some of our adult re-enactment in those days when smacking a child was the norm rather than an exception, shouting at children wasn’t considered unusual, corporal punishment in schools was frequently employed, smoking in the manner of Sally Mann’s character was de rigeur, so our play often reflected these practices; so no the image from Mann isn’t at all shocking. What is are these, obvious real cigarettes in the hands of children. Yes they were made for an advertisement about healthcare, and yes they were meant to shock and I think they achieve that aim.