at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through November 6

Most Americans photograph their children. Few do so in black and white; fewer still use a century-old view camera for the job. The somber gray tones give Sally Mann’s large-format snapshots of her three utterly modern kids the haunting look of the past. But the fact that she’s been criticized for exploiting the children’s nudity in many pictures seems uniquely modern–though some might see an analogy to the Victorians even here, remembering Lewis Carroll’s photographs of young girls. Original photographs from Mann’s controversial family album, Immediate Family, can still be seen, but only through November 6, in a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. (On view indefinitely at the gallery of her dealer, Edwynn Houk, are Mann’s additions to the series since publication.)

Part of Mann’s interest in the past is explained in her introduction to Immediate Family, published last year by Aperture. In words as compelling as her photographs, Mann explains that these pictures of her two young daughters and son were made in the same rural Virginia landscape where she was raised, and that she and her children grew up under similarly unconventional circumstances. She tells how her father, the town doctor and eccentric, let her run wild and naked through the immense garden he decorated with lewd carvings of tree gods: “I was an Indian, a cliff-dweller, a green spirit; I rode my horse with only a string through his mouth, imagining flight.” In her brief essay Mann yearns nostalgically for her childhood, which she recaptures by hungrily watching her own young. Immediate Family dwells most on Mann’s daughters, chiefly Jessie, the elder and apparently the most like her mother in appearance. Alternately brooding and playful, Mann’s photographs follow her children in their gradual realization of the sensuality they clearly inherit from her.

In one striking image from 1989, “Hayhook,” seven-year-old Jessie hangs by her hands, her bare body stretched like a gymnast’s or a carcass, from a farmer’s hay hook in the porch rafters. Her parents’ friends chat at the outskirts of the frame, oblivious as this albino filly extends her limbs to gallop in midair. Children are the only real actors in these dreamscapes, though they often play uncannily adult roles. Jessie’s younger sister, Virginia, stands beside a tree trunk, a devilish Cupid suggestively sucking at a length of hose.

Other photographs are provocative psychologically, like “Ditch” (1987), in which eight-year-old Emmett wriggles on his back down a narrow canal to the river–Mann’s emblem of the flux and recurrence of experience. Again, adults watch blithely from the periphery, their heads cropped. We wonder if these headless observers can recognize the boy’s rite for what it appears to be from the vantage of his mother’s camera: a repetition, in earth and sluice, of his passage through the birth canal? Or is the phallic shape of Emmett’s ditch important? Is he seeking separation from the familiar as he pushes into life’s stream, or fantasizing the opposite journey, through the passage of his birth back into the womb?

In these pictures sensuality invites comparisons across generations to universal experiences of desire and pain, passion and loss. Given her essay, Mann’s photos seem momentary, Proustian remembrances of things past, yet very much alive. Her pictures may refer at times to the history of photography, but the artist reminds us that even these references are keys to her own past. The children are at once Mann’s rebirth and reminders of her loss. Plaintively she asks, “How is it that we must hold what we love tight to us, against our very bones, knowing we must also, when the time comes, let it go?” Is she thinking of her children, her dead father, or another love–self-love, perhaps?

Mann closes her essay poetically, inviting us into her isolated home, where hearts are worn on the sleeve: “In this confluence of past and future, reality and symbol, are Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia. Their strength and confidence, there to be seen in their eyes, are compelling–for nothing is so seductive as a gift casually possessed. They are substantial; their green present is irreducibly complex. The withering perspective of the past, the predictable treacheries of the future; for the moment, those familiar complications of time all play harmlessly around them as dancing shadows beneath the great oak.”

These lyric photographs, like Mann’s children, are her talismans, protecting against the ravages of past and future alike. In his beautifully written afterword to Immediate Family, Reynolds Price wonders what he would give for photographs of the epiphanies of his childhood, even the most humiliating ones. These talismans will be vital to mother and child alike, keeping them together long after beauty and ease have gone.

After such a tender introduction to her family, one can imagine how upset Mann must have been by the murmurs of child abuse that countered the praise for Immediate Family when the series first appeared at New York’s Houk Friedman Gallery in April 1992, shortly before the book was published. The current retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Photography offers a polite selection of only nine Immediate Family images–an uncommon self-censorship, presumably aimed at avoiding further inflammation. The exhibit, curated by museum director Denise Miller-Clark and by Mann herself, seems to bear in mind the present fragility of Mann’s reputation.

The response to Immediate Family was a dizzying mix of adulation and invective. Members of the art community hailed Mann as an inventive photographer steeped in the traditions of her medium–a rare combination in an era when art photography is increasingly the realm of blockbuster retrospectives for the recently dead, even as the contemporary art market moves to abandon the traditions they represent. Mann already had one success to her name: a portfolio, At Twelve, published in 1988. With this new series she came fully into her own.

The mainstream press was more often alarmed, however, by the intimacy of Mann’s family pictures (“Her 4-year-old Femme Fatale,” a New York Post review was headlined). Nudity, especially child nudity, is a touchy topic these days, after the Mapplethorpe controversy and after Jock Sturges’s nude photos of adolescents at the beach were confiscated by federal authorities. Such controversies over artwork have come to seem virtual guarantees of success.

But also people worried, as Mann says she and her husband have at times, about how the children would relate to these pictures when they’re grown, and in the meantime about why they should have to relate, through their images, to the public. People worried about the dangers of grafting adult sexuality onto children–perhaps they found certain pictures uncomfortably arousing. It seemed Mann had provoked an unspoken prejudice against all but the most safely formulaic representations of childhood, a reluctance to see its flux and danger and passion captured.

The criticism of Mann, though at times extreme, was not extraneous to her work. She is clearly aware of each line she crosses. How far into emotionally sensitive regions may an accessible, popular artist venture? The controversy over Immediate Family suggests that protecting children from dangers physical, sexual, and psychological is a quintessential social goal. So from its very inception Immediate Family courted discomfort, stirring and challenging our fears.

The series began with a photo made in 1984 that also begins the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s selection from Immediate Family. This troubling head-on portrait features Jessie, age two, in an old-fashioned lace-collared dress, her right eye swollen half shut. Before Immediate Family Mann rarely titled her work, but this picture bears the hefty label “Damaged Child”–also the title of a 1936 photograph by Dorothea Lange.

Lange’s “Damaged Child” shows a young girl in rags, her wary eyes fixed on ours from a face stained with grime or blood. She holds her arms loosely, as if at ease, but her look of fury confronts a camera that must seem to be bearing down on her. By contrast, Jessie meets the gaze of her mother’s camera with equanimity. Her wound, we’re told by gallery literature, is a gnat bite. Such discoveries are crucial to Mann’s work, like the knowledge that the children are her own. But why should Mann incite concern with a cagey reference to a genuinely damaged child, only to reassure us that everything is fine–if and when we unveil the jest? The suggestion of damage goes no farther than the photograph. Still, it plants a seed of worry, and this is Mann’s tease.

The commonplace wounds of childhood, its bloody scrapes and stitches, are markers as regular as games of make-believe in Mann’s rendition of early life. For “Jessie’s Cut” (1985), she lugged her big camera to the hospital to frame the gauze around her daughter’s eye that isolates a cut just stitched. To a visual artist, injury to the eyes must induce the greatest panic, and this emphasis on threats to her eldest daughter’s eyes is a telling sign of her identification with her child. It gives credence of a sort to her insistence that the children were vital collaborators in the picture-making process: in imagining their perception, she finds her own. But sometimes the children suffer visible damage. The wounds of childhood live on in photographs that paradoxically reassure us of the children’s health.

It’s consoling to remember that the bloody noses and stitched wounds that parents dread are also a physical reminder that most damage is remediable, only skin-deep. Mann is hard-nosed and unsqueamish in this maternal wisdom. In one of the unpublished color images from the family series that concludes this retrospective, she photographs Emmett’s gloriously bloody nose before cleaning it up. Like a tomboy, like a wolf mother, like a doctor’s daughter, she regales us with the daily psychodramas that are the markers of her special connection with her children.

We sense the intensity of this mother’s play with her children, the fierce love that binds her family together. Too often, though, she gets sidetracked into translating private passions for public use. Coy advertisements for youthful sexuality are the unfortunate result. The sight of eight-year-old Jessie on the porch in nothing but roller skates, her hand lazily fingering her crotch (“White Skates,” 1990, on view at Edwynn Houk), is a virtual pin-up poster. Why would Mann want an image with so little psychological insight and so much titillation? Her children are willing performers, but they were performing for their mother, not us. Viewers are left to imagine a much graver sort of damage.

The Museum of Contemporary Photography retrospective helps us put missing pieces of Mann’s story in place with unpublished early photographs from Mann’s personal collection. A 1974 self-portrait, for instance, hints uncannily at the sexualized child portraits to come.

Though we feel Mann’s presence behind the camera throughout Immediate Family, we see her only in this self-portrait. A young woman eyes us with uneasy grace, standing beside her antique view camera in a dim little room. Apparently she and her camera are both looking in a mirror. One hand controls the lens, the other gathers her blouse, as if to shield her breasts. But the effect is to define her body vividly beneath the fabric. The sensuality is unexpected in this earnest context, offering a revealing glimpse of Mann’s self-image, which her children will later reflect and fracture.

Mann’s oddly sensual self-portrait fills a vital space in this retrospective. The show begins with three images from her 1971 Dream Sequence, shadowy scenes of young women enclosed by mirrors, their gazes shifting about. (A gothic look about these pictures is reminiscent of the photographs a reclusive Victorian, Lady Clementina Hawarden, made of her daughters in the early years of photography.) The show leads us from these images of women, emphasizing their delicacy and entrapment, through the mirror gazing of Mann’s own self-portrait to lush body studies made between 1978 and 1980, printed chastely in the antique platinum process to layer tones of white on white. These lustrous pictures examine the details of grave beauty: a collarless shirt, open at the neck; the gathering of cloth in a groin; the sleeve of a transparent gown, drooping like an angel’s wing. They are at once more physical than Mann’s self-portrait and more restrained.

These platinum studies give way to a vibrant series of color still lifes: one of Mann’s few holidays from human subjects, though these prove her most disturbingly sensual images yet. With ten representatives, this untitled series, made between 1981 and 1983, is the largest single body of work in the retrospective. Mann’s camera scans the surface of shallow pools, dense with bizarre, semisubmerged forms. Are they fish in a Chinese pool, the look in a lover’s eyes, or some more sinister combination of animal and vegetable parts? Our eyes are pushed too close to tell, almost too close to focus, as if we were peering at the world through a microscope. Like the platinum body studies, these photographs can seem simply decorative, but they can be frightening too. Just when they start to look like wallpaper, a cow’s tongue takes shape among the underwater lace, or a fish head emerges from drowned flowers. The simplest visual pleasures of color and form turn before our eyes into the stuff of bad dreams. In the context of a retrospective, it is difficult not to take some of the uneasy associations of Mann’s work back with us to her other provocative images.

After this interlude come the more familiar documentary photos of At Twelve, in which Mann began to explore family relationships by focusing on children: the daughters of her neighborhood, photographed at the age when she believes budding sexuality and adult knowledge converge. Hints of abuse often lurk just offstage in the narratives that accompany this book. A girl who keeps her distance from her mother’s boyfriend turns out to have been sexually abused by him. Other young women lounge unsuspectingly among dogs that flaunt their genitalia.

These are distanced, third-person shots, however; they don’t have the first-person inflections of Immediate Family, where the camera angles are looser and more playful, and the danger is all imaginary. Much of the exhilaration of Immediate Family lies in its formal innovation beyond At Twelve. When Mann comes to photograph her own kids, the restrained, forthright spaces of At Twelve give way to more experimental constructions. Suddenly the images are larger, uncropped, and free to run a tonal gamut from thick blacks to nearly transparent whites. Borders push outward, into the broad, shallow space that is the domain of the wide-angle lens. For the first time Mann’s camera approaches the world at curious, personal angles. Her incisively selective focus draws us to the lush center of each frame, where childhood fleetingly emerges from its blur.

Sometimes it’s Mann’s adult memory of childhood that emerges, sometimes a spontaneous revelation of the lives of her children. Either way one might consider the Immediate Family project an attenuated self-portrait. The gothic hints of peril can seem to play coyly to the gallery, but they also reflect Mann’s sense of her difficult aim: to record the life cycle as it turns.

The questionable innuendo of Mann’s recent work finally cannot be removed, no matter how carefully images are selected. It is an intimate part of her portrait of this utterly unique, at once modern and old-fashioned family. In the long run the results are worth the discomfort, in this otherwise subtle autobiography of the senses.