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A discussion on Sally Mann’s work this morning in the SparC presentation “Intent vs. Interpretation” dove deep into the sexualized impressions placed on certain images and the body. This concept was explored by students Ishara Agostini, Lauren Alexander, and Taylor Williams as they conducted a visual analysis on Sally Mann’s photo “Candy Cigarette” from her photo album Immediate Family.

The image explored is here:

The photo immediately struck the audience as complex and convoluted as the middle and main subject, Jessie, is placed in a very adult context, though she is clearly a child. Here, she is seen posturing as a woman and holding limply an unlit cigarette. After asking the immediate reactions of the crowd, the students began a complex and deep visual analysis of the image and offered historical and political context to help in understanding the image and its purpose.

It began with Taylor offering an interesting and insightful explanation of Sally Mann’s work, and the primary connection between the goals of her work and the aim of this picture. She reports that Mann’s photo album “Immediate Family” was a project released in 1992 and with the intent of framing her family’s everyday life and interactions. The album, and particularly this photo, also seek to politicize the connection between the body and children. Taylor explains through photo analysis that Jessie’s body language suggests that she is beyond her years, while the interaction with her siblings still puts her in a scene of play that reinforces her childhood. She also brilliantly points out that there may be a connection to the future in the facings of the children: Emmit (boy on stilts) and Virginia (younger girl to the right) face the same direction suggesting possibly similar, hopeful futures, while Jessie stares the camera head-on suggesting that she is headed in a different, possibly more challenging direction.

Lauren then follows with a historical context of the photo regarding cigarettes and how a culture of sex and cigarettes has been engrained in American history and culture. There is an inherent connection with sex and cigarettes as Lauren explains the historical propaganda imaging that make this photo inherently political. To continue that connection of sex and cigarettes, then, in a child makes this photo even more problematic and controversial.

But the ordering of this presentation is not only logical, but timely as Ishara finishes by explaining exactly why these connections are problematic and what that means to and for Mann as an artist. She comments that because of the push of those sexualized, smoking ads, the force of sex on cigarettes has become a subconscious effect of society, even when it is not intentional. Because Jessie is a child, there is nothing inherently sexual about the photo…other than that she holds a cigarette. Ishara then explains that the politics behind the body, crossed with the sexualization of cigarette use, creates a, “Sexually knowlegable young girl, but her innocence is a part of her allure.” This explains the audience’s initial repelling of the image, because our historically skewed gaze impresses sexual implication onto this young girl, while still trying to hold onto her innocence as a child.

It was a very deep and critical analysis conducted well and displayed creatively.   These ladies made the dissection of a larger than life image into smaller, digestible bits. This was not an easy task, but it was done with the ease of a clearly strong group effort and steady research practices. I learned quite a lot about the artist, as well as about the intersections of body politics, child imaging, and American sexualization.