For a period of time I stopped looking at Sally Mann’s At Twelve, Portraits of Young Women (Aperture, 1988). My avoidance of Mann’s work did not come easy. After years of staring back at these young women, girls really, my emotional reactivity was sorrowful with a heavy desire to save them all when I could not save myself. I found connections between the visual retelling of their stories alongside Mann’s essay conducive to my own experiences. Sometimes I would look into their eyes, study their faces, choose one of them to talk to. I told them my story, waited for them to respond. I asked them questions that remain unanswered, yet their expressions and details assembled in each photographic composition told me otherwise. Mann does not simply capture a moment, but reveals as Ann Beattie writes in “We Are Their Mirror, They are Ours,” “The harder we study these photographs, the more it seems that Mann’s subjects are where they should not be” and I think in some way I felt the same about looking at these pictures– I too was in a place I should not be (7). I had no right to ask them anything.
Mann photographed her young subjects in Rockbridge County, Virginia where she also grew up (13). The subject of the first photograph I choose to examine wears a three-quarter sleeve blouse with a delicate lace-trim collar, a button-down front and ties at the waist. Her long eyelet skirt falls out of frame as her hands stretch outward, her body forming the letter ‘t.’ She stretches across her bust line what looks like a pair of nylons, accentuating her hidden breasts. Her head is slightly turned, but eyes make contact and a secret smirk crosses her face. Mann’s photos are black and white, so it isn’t always easy to see extreme details, but she might have freckles emphasizing her youthful appearance. Her dark messy hair is pulled back by a ribbon that matches her outfit. The girl leans back, resting her head on a clothesline holding two folding blankets: a floral printed bedspread to the subject’s left and a zig-zag textured blanket to her left. Just about the girl’s right shoulder are two menstrual blood stains (my summation) reminding the viewer of birth, bodily maturation, and sex. I remember waking up one morning with stomach pains and a headache. I felt something wet and immediately understood my life was forever changed. I looked at the damp brownish-red fluid setting to stain the Alice and Wonderland sheets my mother made for me. I tried writing story after story about those sheets because the stains would never washout, symbolizing not only the transformation into womanhood, but foreshadowing the loss I would experience a year later. I asked her, Who are you really? What are smiling for? If I tell you my story will you laugh at me?
But this isn’t about me, not really. Also hanging on the line past the blood-stained blanket is a pair of tights held by a single clothespin; one leg wrapped around the spiral tree, imitating a dancer. Mann’s subject could be a 19th century washerwoman, or a slightly older Alice Liddell. We can never base the meaning of one’s facial expression on ‘the look’ alone. Even here, each photograph is taken within a specific intertextual social context; we can interpret each photograph according to what we see, connecting the image with text provided in Mann’s essay, but sometimes it is unclear to me which girl Mann is talking about: “”Several months ago the mother’s boyfriend told me that Cindy had “gotten herself a baby.”He had a photograph of her holding her baby and pregnant again””(20).
Given the ambiguous nature of language and image we swing in the lark of conjecture. Dare we assume to know anything?
He is dangerous. His eyes reveal what we do not want to know. He leans against a painted cinder-block wall in a filthy white t-shirt advertising tequila, a half-smoked cigarette between his right pointer finger and middle finger. He wears equally dirty cut-off jean shorts. His right arm gutted with cheap tattoos and I wonder if he carved his own flesh. The name ‘Sandra’ appears on his bicep with a crudely drawn female with long hair falling over one breast; she is incomplete and unavailable from the waist down. But the young girl standing next to him, right hand clutching her belt and what I think is a flower, turns her head slightly away. Her left arm drapes over his shoulder. Mann writes “This child was distinctly reluctant to stand closer to her mother’s boyfriend. This seemed strange to me, as it was their peculiar familiarity that had provoked this photograph in the first place” (unpaged). Run, I think. Run as fast as you can to the nearest rabbit hole. The open window behind you will never do.
The girl’s hair is parted down the middle and feathered on the sides. Delicate curls linger around her face. Her floral shirt is open at the collar, buttoned down the front and tucked into her rolled jean shorts. A D hook belt is snug around her waist, perhaps a symbol of protection or the need for protection. Her earrings are familiar–small gold cut-out stars, the dream of another place that is not Rockbridge County. Her face scares me too, but in a different way. She is vulnerable, but hides it. Her mouth is closed, but not quite pinched. Her eyebrows burrow. She is tough, but there is only so much she can do. I think she and I would get along well because even though we are opposites we have something in common. I want to save her most of all, but I can only tell her, Stay quiet and listen, lock the door when you are alone. Never trust the Cheshire cat.
As I flip through, pause, look carefully from one girl to another I think they begin to look the same. And sometimes I see myself. These eyes that dare stare back and force the viewer to think and ask questions, beg for answers–these girls forced to grow-up too fast– what do I know? I know nothing. I can only see what I see, and read what I read. But there is no hiding from truth-telling. And even then, we are enigmatically framed.