A Gaze, a Glimpse from a Girl on Horseback

A gaze on horseback

Yann Arthus-Bertrand – Human (2015) (1)

Close-up (1)

Yann Arthus-Bertrand – Human (2015) (closeup)

Where a trailer would want to be an introduction or characterization or an appetizer to the movie, can a film still from a movie or trailer be a characterization of the movie? And, secondly, can it stand on itself as a picture, without having watched the movie? Or even can one recognize it was from a movie? Did you realize, at first glance that the picture above was from a movie? And furthermore, can a picture taken from a movie stand on its own merit and characterize the movie? Can a “snapshot” produced by one of the several video players become a kind of artistic photography?

Yann Arthus Bertrand - Human (2015)

Yann Arthus-Bertrand – Human (2015) (2)

The two stills come from the documentary Human (2015) by the French photographer, reporter, film director and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand. In 1991 Bertrand founded the Altitude Agency, the first press agency specializing in aerial photography. The film is composed repeatedly of aerial footage interspersed with first person stories told directly into the camera, and close-ups of other people during the telling of the story, giving the impression that they were listening. So this is a movie about humankind, with landscape scenes recorded at high speed to produce the effect of slowed down live action. That is the story and rhythm of a long and rather slow movie about humankind—its pains and joys: love, children, work, dreams and expectations, disappointments, death, the day to day mysteries of life. And about how we use the Earth, but also about—as in a line of poetry by Emily Brontë—“How beautiful the Earth is still”.

Maybe the slower landscape shot and aerial scene suddenly brought to my eyes a girl, gazing for a glimpse and then riding away. I saw her for the first time in the trailer. Maybe it was the briefness of the scene that made her gaze especially startling. I recommend both the trailer and, of course, the whole documentary (188 minutes long). And I wish to recommend these chosen film stills; first the gaze at first glance and, second, a logical end of the short scene. These pictures are not characteristic of the film in the sense that the film is not only about this girl. I do not even know her name, but she can stand for the title of the film. And I would like to add, she herself can stand for a kind of freedom—not merely a child riding her or his first bike, but on a horseback on the plains of her homeland. In this context, this behavior is probably quite usual for children, even girls. Nevertheless, in this brief passing by, there is a glimpse of freedom and a gaze of mutual understanding held in the eye of the everlasting beholder.

Returning to the questions asked in the beginning, it is by chance whether one first sees the full movie, a trailer or just a single image. In my case, it was the trailer with the sudden appearance of the girl on horseback and that gaze. In that instant it became a film still in my memory, long before the use of technology allowed me to express it. From now on, I can choose to look at every film still as a picture and every picture as a film still from a movie. However, it is the eye that judges the picture’s quality and decides whether it represents the tone of the movie. This way of watching is helpful when writing about movies where the focus is on a specific girl or girls—or about the “girl” archetype—here derived as a kind of subtopic, not from a typical coming-of-age movie, but from a beautiful movie about humankind in general.

Yann Arthus Bertrand - Human Official Poster (2015)

Yann Arthus-Bertrand – Human Official Poster (2015)

Human by Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Official Trailer on YouTube

Human (Extended version, Vol. 3) on YouTube

Under the Big Top

There are plenty of examples of little girls, both fictional and real, performing in circuses, carnivals, rodeos, etc. Often, it is the natural consequence of being a child of performers and getting an early start in the business, often translating into virtuosic skill. There are certainly far too many examples—Michal Chelbin and Ilona Szwarc for instance—to pretend to be definitive here, but I wanted to present two important examples.

Before presenting the first one, one television episode brings to mind the kinds of motivations that drive people to become performers or to avoid becoming performers. In an episode of Northern Exposure entitled Get Real (1991), the bus of a traveling troupe breaks down and they have to stay in the local town until they can make repairs. Among the contortionists, jugglers, magicians and one “flying” man, there is a little girl, the daughter of two of the members. It is amusing watching her flit about, the quintessential child, while the rest of the troupe are practicing. Consistent with the show’s style is this peculiar backstory. Her parents were physicists who thought they could not have children until, suddenly, Nina (Remy Ryan) came along. They were concerned about the isolating effect of academia, so they joined the circus to give their daughter a richer environment.

Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider and Michael Katleman - Northern Exposure: Get Real (1991) (1)

Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider and Michael Katleman – Northern Exposure: Get Real (1991) (1)

Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider and Michael Katleman - Northern Exposure: Get Real (1991) (2)

Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider and Michael Katleman – Northern Exposure: Get Real (1991) (2)

I must admit I am not well-versed on circus culture, but like everyone else, I am familiar with a few famous names. One of those are the Flying Wallendas and I was surprised to find this photo on a sales site of Carla as a little girl practicing. Whatever I could tell you about this family would come from conventional sources, so you can take a look for yourself. A caption appears on the back of the photograph:

At age five, Carla already has remarkable muscle control. Here she is in limbering up exercises with her father, Carl. -Acme Roto Service, 1941

(Photographer Unknown) (1941)

(Photographer Unknown) (1941)

Some material can now be found on the internet about the Swiss National Circus Knie, but when I first learned about them, I could find nothing. This is surprising given how famous it is in Switzerland and Europe. It shows that there is no guarantee that important information will be found on the net. My introduction to this family operation was a film titled Horses of the World (1996). There were two programs, both produced and directed by Roland Blum: one covering Lipizzaners and the other, Free Dressage in the Circus Ring, was about Circus Knie. At the time of the footage, the organization was about to go on tour for their 75th anniversary and was preparing a special show. The most remarkable thing about the Knie dynasty is they practice perhaps the most effective forms of animal training today. The Knie family got their start (in their modern form) in 1919 with the high wire and related performances. But when they added animal acts to their show, there was a problem: all the suitable horses—mares and geldings—were conscripted for military service in World War II. It was decided that for the long-term stability of the enterprise, they would have to work with stallions exclusively. Today, they are famous for their acts involving Arabs and they are stunning creatures. I recall when reading about successful bird trainers that the key was to make use the animal’s natural behavior, slowly shaping it into the desired performance. The film covered three generations of Knies working in the ring: Frédy Senior, Frédy Junior (now in charge) and Geraldine. Before so-called horse whisperers were in vogue, they knew that to get the best results, one must maintain dominance through patience, praise and clear communication. One need never strike an animal. Both Frédy Jr. and Geraldine started their work with horses when they were five and subsequently developed their mastery.

Roland Blum - Horses of the World: Free Dressage in the Circus Ring (1996) (1)

Roland Blum – Horses of the World: Free Dressage in the Circus Ring (1996) (1)

Roland Blum - Horses of the World: Free Dressage in the Circus Ring (1996) (2)

Roland Blum – Horses of the World: Free Dressage in the Circus Ring (1996) (2)

The proof of their skill is the fact that they use animals that conventional training says are untrainable. Frédy Sr. says that if a trainer is skilled with horses, he will be skilled working with any other animal: big cats, camels, elephants, zebras, rhinos, giraffes, etc. He is often consulted by top trainers and equestrians for extra training and help with troubled animals. He says if you want to develop your patience, work with zebras. They take much longer to train, but then become more consistent in performances. Another notable accomplishment is an act where a trainer rides a bull giraffe. A further demonstration of the discipline they established is that different species of animal—such as lions and horses—are able to perform closely together in the same ring.

Circus Knie (official website in German)

The Blind Art Collector

In the beginning of Public Speaking, a film about Fran Lebowitz, she tells the story of an art collector who was showing off his multi-million dollar Picasso to some friends. When he turned around, his elbow went through the canvas and tore it. You see, this man could not see and this incident serves as an apt metaphor for our age.

…there is no more suitable and potent image-symbol for our time than the image of the blind art collector. -Fran Lebowitz, Public Speaking, 2010

Lebowitz mused that that would make an excellent book title. Sorry for stealing your thunder Fran, but the two films reviewed here really demonstrate different aspects of this phenomenon: Catfish (2010) and My Kid Could Paint That (2007).

Watching Catfish is a fun adventure because it is not simply a documentary, but a mystery that takes place in real time. It is about the evolving relationship between a dance photographer named Yaniv “Nev” Schulman and a woman named Angela through Facebook. Schulman shares an office with two filmmakers in New York and they decided they wanted to document this interesting development.

It all started after the exhibition of one of his photographs; shortly after, he got a unexpected package in the mail. It was a painting of his photograph, ostensibly produced by an 8-year-old girl named Abby.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (1)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (1)

When first I saw this, I knew I had to share this story with Pigtails readers, not imagining how many twists and turns there would be. Over time, Angela introduced Schulman to a number of her family members, all seemingly endowed with artistic talent. Alex was Abby’s brother who was part of a rock band and Abby’s half-sister, Megan, was a singer, musician and dancer. Abby continued to send paintings of Schulman’s pictures and he began to hear about her prodigious output and the popularity of her work at gallery showings. At a certain point, he could request a painting (from Abby) or a song (from Megan) and it would be produced in short order. The bubble finally burst when Schulman and the filmmakers got suspicious about this fast turnaround. With a little investigating, they realized that Angela was simply taking music found on the internet and calling it her own. Schulman was deflated at being so deceived and his instinct was to cut off all contact, but it was decided that they should slyly confront her about her ruse and see where it led. After a show in Colorado, the crew flew to Chicago and drove to a small town in Upper Michigan to see how she would react to a surprise visit. They planned to handle things gingerly so Angela would not be scared off right away. After the initial greetings, he finally got to meet Abby who was with her friend when they arrived.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (2)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (2)

While Abby was getting ready, Schulman cornered the friend to talk about this prolific output. Being unprepared for this unexpected visit, this turned into something of a clearcut confession.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (3)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (3)

When Abby finally came out, the gentle interrogation continued and getting flustered, she finally exclaimed, “You’re confusing me!”

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (4)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (4)

Having secured his confession, he continued to spend time with Angela looking for the right time to confront her without needlessly hurting or embarrassing her. He realized she was just a lonely woman looking for a way to connect on a deeper level with a bigger world. Her home life was both mundane and challenging with a mentally-challenged son who needed a lot of care. Finally, while Abby was having her riding lesson, he coaxed the truth out of her, assuring her that everything was all right and that he was no longer upset by her deception.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (5)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (5)

It was an especially moving story because instead of exacting revenge, Schulman made a real connection with a warm and imaginative woman—who was, of course, the real painter. By the end of shooting, the two of them remained Facebook friends.

The second film is about a 4-year-old named Marla Olmstead. It is an instructive story about fame, the media and the fickle art world. Marla’s parents, Laura and Mark, say all of this was just a fluke. While Mark was doing some painting, Marla started begging him to do some painting as well. Instead of just sticking her in front of the television, he obliged. He learned that it made more sense to just have her work on a canvas placed flat on the dining room table instead of an easel.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (1)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (1)

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (2)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (2)

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (3)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (3)

Like any proud parent would, they loved her “masterpieces”. Friends kept commenting on the work and one who owned a coffee shop asked if he could hang some of them at his place of business. The canvases garnered a lot of positive comment and he was compelled to ask the family for prices so they might be sold. Anthony Brunelli, himself a realist painter, offered to have her work exhibited along with his. He contacted a local paper and a family and parenting columnist for The Press & Sun Bulletin, Elizabeth Cohen, did a human interest piece on Marla. When someone at The New York Times got wind of it, the fuse was lit. The ironic part is that Marla did not seem to like all the attention and was normally the quietest kid in her class—unlike her little brother Zane, who could be seen hamming it up in front of the camera. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to a lot of grown-ups about her artistic vision. Whenever she was in the mood to paint, she was made to wear a denim dress that would be easy to clean after the inevitable mess.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (4)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (4)

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (5)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (5)

It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of Marla and her parents had to confer with each other often about who should have access and who should not. After some time in the spotlight, it was inevitable that the media should turn on her. The story was getting stale and so there had to be a new angle. On February 23, 2005, a 60 Minutes story aired essentially calling Marla’s work a fraud. The niggling problem was that whenever there was a camera trained on her, she would produce these muddy compositions that did not reflect the style of her other work. This called into question whether she really did the canvases by herself and Mark and Laura got the expectable accusations of being bad parents and exploiting their child for personal gain. After the shock of the 60 Minutes piece subsided and nervous collectors were happily buying her work again, the Olmsteads cautiously agreed to allow Amir Bar-Lev to create this documentary. He promised to cover the story objectively and let the viewers decide if this was a fraud or not. It was a difficult task because Marla, being a real 4-year-old, did not take a full-time interest in painting. A hidden camera was set up and finally she was shot producing an actual work. Nevertheless, critics were not satisfied as this piece still did not seem to meet the standards of those that came before. At age five, Marla continued to get high prices for her work.  Here she is attending one of her showings.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (6)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (6)

I’m afraid the filmmaker left the audience hanging as he could not make a definitive conclusion. And I had a bad feeling in my stomach because I knew that most people would look at this story in a conventional way—taking one side or another—and not see what it reveals about abstract art and the human mind. Many simply regard abstract art as a simple fraud. Indeed, a testament to an artist’s skill is his ability to communicate an idea clearly with at least some elements of realism. Laura hated it when people called Marla a prodigy and it is a reasonable complaint. The reality may seem a bit dull to some but a little girl had a rare opportunity to express herself with paint simply because the tools were on hand—including a supportive father who could bring together the materials. It is no surprise that someone so young would produce abstract images as they are an expression of the unabashed impulses of the subconscious which could not only be produced by 4-year-old, but would be appreciated by the sensitive adult mind. Adults do tend to forget how aware small children can be. Even the parents erroneously assumed that, in her innocence, she was oblivious to the vagaries of fame. I actually did not find it surprising at all that Marla could not be herself when being watched, even when shot by a hidden camera.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (7)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (7)

Unfortunately, society’s current assumptions and modern scientific understanding are inadequate to understanding the subtleties of this story and others like it and reflects how far we still have to go. I was told about a similar case in Australia of Aelita Andre. Whereas Marla is private and subdued, Aelita is articulate and self-possessed and yet both reveal something universal about the human mind as yet unhindered by the constraints of culture.

Aelita Andre website

Potent Personalities: Sally Mann

Mann’s challenging images of childhood and, by extension, motherhood have become ubiquitous. This post has been long in coming because of the nagging question: How will I ever do justice to this artist’s work? Finally, the release of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, published by Little, Brown and Co., this May forced my hand and convinced me that I could procrastinate no further. The book is the kind of self-examination that would have made Socrates proud and an enviable genealogical legacy to her entire family.

Sally Mann (neé Munger) was born in 1951 in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Her father, a family physician from an established Texan family, was educated in the North where he met Sally’s mother. This kind of heritage would almost inevitably make Sally a fish out of water in social circles but impress upon her an appreciation for the land itself. She took a serious interest in photography when at The Putney School in Vermont which her two brothers had attended before her. Her father introduced her to the arts and she has fond memories of several books he shared with her. One was The Family of Man (1955) and on only her second roll of film, she shot her first nudes in 1969, inspired by Wynn Bullock’s Child in Forest. For the most part, Sally bares all in her book, but out of respect for one of her subjects who now has a prominent position in a major corporation, she did not reproduce it.

Wynn Bullock - Child in Forest (1951)

Wynn Bullock – Child in Forest (1951)

Two films were produced about Sally, both directed by Steven Cantor. The first, Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (1994), was shot and produced during the furor over the exhibitions of her child nudes and the second, What Remains (2005), gives a much more comprehensive picture of her inspirations and body of work. When I personally learned of the artist’s work, I was naturally impressed by the raw and pristine imagery, but after seeing these films, I admit to falling in love with the humanity of this imaginative and tortured soul. We begin to get an insight into Sally’s attitude about nudity by the fact that in her first two years of life, she obstinately refused to wear clothes. In fact, the assumption that nudity was an integral part of everyday childhood caused her to overstate in interviews the number of photos that existed of her in a state of undress. After a careful review, she was compelled to amend the record. Some of the photographs of young Sally reveal some of the striking characteristics to be seen later in her own children.

Steven Cantor - What Remains (2005) (1)

Steven Cantor – What Remains (2005) (1)

After high school, she opted to attend Bennington College, deciding that she was not cut out for one of the more urban schools. She met Larry Mann during a Christmas visit home in 1969 and they were married six months later. During their early years together, they traveled throughout Europe on a thin shoestring budget, much to the consternation of Larry’s socially ambitious parents. And even after visiting some of the most beautiful places in Europe, the couple felt nothing held a candle to Rockbridge County so they moved there for good in 1973. Sally shares a rich tapestry of family history including how her father first bought the land and how she later bought out her brothers’ shares so that it could become the Mann estate.

It seems remarkable in retrospect, but at first, Sally did not consider her children suitable subjects for art photography. She did the usual photos that parents are expected to make, but they were snapshots and not done with an artist’s eye. Sally has always respected the presence of serendipity in the creative process and in 1985, one of her biggest took place. Emmett, Sally’s eldest child, was born in 1980 and then Jessie came in 1981. With the birth of Virginia, she fancied that she should capture the event on film. Unfortunately, the exposure time needed to compensate for the poor lighting meant that Virginia’s entry into the world was a blur—”a dud”. A few months later, Sally took what she considered her first good family picture, Damaged Child, of Jessie’s swollen face from insect bites. She got the idea from the title of a Dorothea Lange photo Damaged Child, Shacktown,Elm Grove, Oklahoma (1936). As she continued her efforts in this vein, she began to realize that she was blessed with children of potent character. Even so, none of this would have materialized without an attitude shift. It is perhaps within the most mundane material that we find the sublime.

Sally Mann - Damaged Child (1984)

Sally Mann – Damaged Child (1984)

Sally’s family photographs are a mixture of spontaneity and deliberate composition. For example, here we can see her directing Virginia to get one of her shots.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (1)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (1)

Sally Mann - At Warm Springs (1991)

Sally Mann – At Warm Springs (1991)

On the other hand, when she sees something she just has to capture she asks the child to hold still until she can get her camera set up. These are precarious times because as time passes, some of the spontaneity is lost and the strain of holding the pose adds to the intensity of the posture and facial expression. In one of Sally’s favorite images, she had the camera nearby and was able to shoot The Perfect Tomato. The strange title was the product of haste; the tomatoes were the only thing in focus in the shot. The lens flare was a happy accident that gave the subject an angelic quality. In Blood Ties, Jessie described her memory of how it happened.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (2)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (2)

Sally Mann - The Perfect Tomato (1990)

Sally Mann – The Perfect Tomato (1990)

In 2000, Melissa Harris interviewed Jessie Mann who was preparing for her freshman year in college. Among other things, she spoke about the nature of her relationship with her mother.

When we were taking pictures, it created a relationship with Mom that’s very different from other people’s relationships—much more powerful…Because there already is a very powerful bond, then add to that the bond between artist and subject…On top of being our mother, she became a whole lot more. So that made our relationship stronger, but of course more complicated. -Jessie Mann, 2000 (Aperture No. 162, Winter 2001)

The combination of an artist’s eye and a desire to get the image just right created a kind of ambivalence within the family. On the one hand, it is flattering to get so much attention, but getting the image right sometimes meant a seemingly interminable effort. In the case of the image The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, when she first saw Emmett in the water, she did the usual and asked him to hold still. Shot after shot did not come out to Sally’s satisfaction and over the next 7 or 8 days, Emmett patiently followed his mother’s instructions until everything was right: the light, the reflection in the water, the eye level, Emmett’s position in the water, Emmett’s position in the frame and the right pose and facial expression. The title, which later came to have a double meaning, was meant to express the exasperation after such an ordeal. Several versions were reprinted in Hold Still to illustrate this process.

For the most part, Larry and the kids were good sports and for that reason, Sally has to give equal credit to her subjects for the successful collaboration. But sometimes, as Emmett remarked, whenever one of them noticed that look in their mother’s eyes—when she suddenly “saw” a picture—if one was not in the mood for another photo session, one had better make himself scarce. Or if there was no way out of it, the kids could torment their mother in more subtle ways. The top shot of all three kids appeared on the cover of Immediate Family, but the bottom illustrates one of the variations where the girls have softer facial expressions. Emmett confessed later that during this shoot, he was moving his body ever so slightly forward and back to keep his mother from getting the perfect focus.

Sally Mann - Emmett, Jessie and Virginia (1989) (and variant)

Sally Mann – Emmett, Jessie and Virginia (1989) (and variant)

Despite these battles of will, the family members recognize that Sally brings out something special in the seemingly ordinary.

…She sees the world in images. -Larry Mann (What Remains, 2005)

It’s almost like she sees something happening and she just thinks to herself, “I know that this is special—what I’m seeing right here.” -Emmett Mann (What Remains, 2005)

When you’re around an artist all the time, you’re always reminded of what’s beautiful and what’s special, and you can’t forget it. -Jessie Mann (Aperture, No. 162, Winter 2001)

I think what makes Mom different is that she can look at the same object that I would consider pretty commonplace and ordinary, but she’ll make a print of it and suddenly I’ll see the beauty of it. -Virginia Mann (What Remains, 2005)

When Immediate Family was published in 1992, Sally assumed it would be greeted with moderate acclaim just like her previous work, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988).

Sally Mann - At Twelve (c1984)

Sally Mann – At Twelve (c1984)

The family was not prepared for the explosive sales and the notoriety that came. Listening to the detractors, one might come away with the impression that Sally published the work without regard to the feelings and reputations of her family, but this was far from the truth. The children were consulted about their favorites and which images they objected to. Never was nudity at issue and Larry mediated to make sure the children were not just trying to please their mother. For example, Emmett vetoed an image (Emmett Asleep, 1985) because, at the time, he was pretending to be Bugs Bunny and was wearing white stockings on his arms. Given his age, he was concerned about looking like a dork. Another candid image was of Virginia entitled Pissing in the Wind. Now that they are grown up, they can appreciate these images for what they are, candid moments of family life and these two examples were reprinted in Hold Still. Sometimes Sally censored herself as in The Bent Ear. With Jessie’s thin figure and the strain of waiting for the camera to be set up, Sally thought the picture made her look like a torture victim and was simply too painful to look at.

Sally Mann - The Bent Ear (1989)

Sally Mann – The Bent Ear (1989)

When the letters came in, Sally was surprised at the range of comments. In her characteristic fastidiousness, she sorted them into For, Against and What the Fuck? Although a sense of humor was undoubtedly helpful, the one ray of light was that more than half the letters were positive. It is tempting for visually literate people to write off any negative comments as narrow-minded and not worthy of acknowledgment. Whatever the interpretation, what was happening was a kind of culture clash. Nudity seems to be a natural mode of expression for the liberal-minded proponents of counterculture; and just as there are clothing-optional parks and beaches, there are bound to be many households that observe this custom as well.

The real breakthrough in Hold Still is that Sally makes the context of the land paramount in the interpretation of the pictures. Within this context, these images make perfect sense and without it, they seem bizarre at first glance. The land that the Manns owned was a secluded plot surrounded, unusually, on three sides by the Maury River. Even in the most difficult of times, the family felt safe there away from the madness and ridicule of society—without radios, without television and without computers.

How natural was it in that situation, to allow our children to run naked? Or, put another way, how bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for their river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark, when all three would would dive like sleek otters for glow sticks thrown in the pool under the still-warm cliffs? -Sally Mann (Hold Still, 2015)

For the most part, Sally would avoid looking at the almost endless barrage of reviews. She was an artist, after all, and would not want her art to be tainted by the influx of public opinion. But occasionally, something would come across her radar and one review in particular was devastating in its thoughtlessness and self-righteousness. It was an editorial by Raymond Sokolov, a food critic of all things, published in the Wall Street Journal in February 1991. Ostensibly about government funding of the arts, it took the opportunity to ridicule and mutilate an image published on the cover of the Fall 1990 issue (No. 121) of Aperture. Virginia happened to see it and was very upset about being “crossed out”. For a time, she became extremely self-conscious about her body and even wanted to wear shorts and a shirt in the bathtub the following night. In an attempt at a kind of psychotherapy, a photo shoot was conducted to make a light-hearted mockery of the censorship.

Virginia at 4 (1989) ; Sokolov Article, Wall Street Journal (1991); Virginia's Letter to the Editor (1991)

Virginia at 4 (1989) ; Sokolov Article, Wall Street Journal (1991); Virginia’s Letter to the Editor (1991)

Sally Mann - (Untitled) (1991)

Sally Mann – (Untitled) (1991)

To Sally, her family photographs were partly therapeutic. She would take every mishap and exaggerate it into a worst-case scenario to help alleviate her own anxieties about motherhood and as a kind of sympathetic magic to prevent the worst from actually happening. Whether this actually worked is a matter of perspective. Both Jessie and Emmett are only alive today because of stokes of good fortune, Jessie having been born premature and in guarded condition for an extended period and Emmett surviving a car impact that ought to have killed him.

Sally Mann - Jessie's Cut (1985)

Sally Mann – Jessie’s Cut (1985)

As statistics will bear out, whenever there is a large group of people, a tiny percent are bound to be weirdos. Two particular individuals stand out in Sally’s memory and their tales are told in the book. A few years into their marriage, Larry’s mother, who lived in Connecticut, murdered her husband and then killed herself. Because the couple was respected in the community, the police did not really conduct a full investigation and quickly closed the case. Sally fancied she’d investigate further on her own and called the police to request a copy of the case file. Strangely, the police had the file readily at hand. The reason was that they were receiving strange letters from someone in Richmond with fanciful suggestions of foul play. It turned out to be the mother of a disgruntled artist, envious of Sally’s fame. The other was a man who became love-sick for the Mann children. He would track down family members, neighbors and institutions for any scrap of information about them such as birth certificates, school events and grades. The FBI became involved but informed the family that since this man did not make any threats and had not trespassed onto the property, nothing could be done. The family decided not to go public with this information until now based on the notion that they should not dignify the efforts of this man. Ironically, in their diligence to keep a wary eye out, this man came up in family conversations more often than blood kin. In a sense, he got his most fervent wish as his specter was a constant presence in the house.

Perhaps the most hurtful type of negative criticism was that Sally was a bad mother. This put her in an intractable position as no mother is perfect, but with the public scrutiny, every little thing would be interpreted as some shortcoming. As mentioned before, mother and children are all strong-willed people and there were the usual conflicts as is bound to happen in any family. Sally was apparently not physically affectionate with her children and so there are signs that they sought other forms of comfort. Jessie, for example, developed a drinking problem which she has been managing. After reflection, the children now recognize that their mother expressed her love through her art and gifted them with a sense of their beauty. For this reason, each of the children are consistently very protective of their mother and defend her as necessary. And Sally has her regrets as well, like the time Jessie refused to eat her flounder and was made to sit there all night until she finished it.

Sally Mann - (Untitled) (c1986)

Sally Mann – (Untitled) (c1986)

Fame is a two-edged sword, but it would be unfair to blame its negative effect on an artist who could never have anticipated it. She reasonably assumed that quality work would eventually get recognized by cultured people—but slowly. Sally’s notoriety sometimes interfered with schoolyard relationships because other kids would tease them or other parents objected to their mother’s work. With this kind of fame, what room is there for the children to find their own place in the world? Once Emmett and Jessie were in college, they started talking to each other about their childhood in a kind of exclusive support group; who else would understand their experiences? And should they parlay their mother’s fame to their own benefit? Another effect of all this attention is that one can get used to it. In the film What Remains, Jessie talks about being a kind of modeling junkie. Whenever someone wanted to do a photo shoot of her, she just couldn’t say no. On the other hand, Virginia, being much younger, had a slightly different perspective, hoping simply to fit in and get on with her life.

All the while, in the background of all this drama, was the land. One can see Sally’s interest in the family photographs wane as the children became smaller and smaller in the background of these timeless landscapes.

Sally Mann - Sempervirens "Stricta" (1995)

Sally Mann – Sempervirens “Stricta” (1995)

A theme that permeates Sally’s retrospective is death. She learned that her father collected art that featured portrayals of death and analyzing Southern culture, Sally feels there is always an undercurrent of death, as though it were a familiar companion. This is an understandable reflection of all the blood shed on battlefields and the brutal use of Africans and their descendants in the building of the South.

There were two events in Sally’s life that precipitated two of her projects. The first was the death of one of her beloved greyhounds, Eva. She could not bear to bury her and so, over time, she studied her pet’s decomposing remains. Even the smallest fragment of bone seemed to evoke memories of Eva. She became fascinated about what happens to bodies when they decay and was given permission to photograph bodies at a facility where they study decaying bodies in the open. The results of her work appeared in the book, What Remains (2003). The other event was the killing of an escaped convict on the family compound. When the authorities finally cleared out, she stared at that place contemplating the dichotomy of death and renewal. While the land indiscriminately recycles, the memories of death linger in the writings and minds of human beings. This prompted a visit to the great battlefields of the South to capture this sentiment on film, culminating in the book Deep South (2005). And as if there were not already enough presence of decay in Sally’s life, Larry was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy in which the muscles waste away. Fortunately, Larry had a well-developed physique to start with so it would take longer for the condition to be debilitating. For most men, this kind of indignity would cause him to hide his disease, but instead Larry has generously allowed Sally to photograph him and his condition as time passes in a project calls ‘Proud Flesh’.

Another expression of Sally’s fascination with the past is that she processes her own negatives and has practiced a number of antiquarian techniques. She likes the feel of handling the materials, much as Julia Margaret Cameron did. Also like Cameron, she welcomes the serendipitous flaws that are rejected in a professional process: dust getting on the plate or laminate peeling on the negative in just the right place. Using older techniques also means longer exposure times and in her series, ‘Faces’, she asked her grown up children to hold still for various 3-minute exposures. The flaw in this image gives the impression of soapy tears.

Sally Mann - Faces No. 10 (2004)

Sally Mann – Faces No. 10 (2004)

A manifestation of the superficiality of society is that if a gallery can’t make money on art, they aren’t interested. Sally was disheartened that no New York gallery would exhibit ‘Faces’ and she later found an excellent venue in Washington DC which made it possible for friends and neighbors to view it. This project also became a kind of personal discipline. Sally admits to being a nervous and frenetic person by nature and so has challenged herself to produce self-portraits that require her to hold still for 6 minutes while she exposes the plate.  This development is also a result of the fact that her children are no longer on hand to model

Steven Cantor - What Remains (2005) (2)

Steven Cantor – What Remains (2005) (2)

Having both Southern and Yankee blood, Sally was exposed to the best and worst of both cultures. She embraced the philosophy behind the Civil Rights movement, but she herself was raised by a black woman she knew as Gee-Gee. The day-to-day management of the household was done by this woman and she made sure Sally was fed, dressed and ready for school. Sally’s contemplation of the role of black people in the South made her wonder about this alien lifestyle and upbringing—so utterly different from her own. In an effort to explore this “otherness”, she recently embarked on a project to photograph the bodies of black men. To bring out the truth in her subjects, she keeps things as anonymous as possible. She does not ask them about their lives and she does not share any particulars about herself except what she requires of them. After about an hour, they part company.

From time to time, Sally—sometimes with the kids—would review the family photographs. She shares an interesting theory about the interplay of memory and photography. Not really remembering her own childhood, she has relied on photographs and other artifacts to reveal her own past. It is as though the ability to record things photographically diminishes our capacity to remember. Historians have noted something similar after the invention of mechanical printing and the development of popular literacy centuries ago. In her Aperture interview, Jessie expressed a sense of disembodiment about her old pictures, a feeling that they are not really of her. This makes some sense since we are not the same people we were as children and here the images are not just family snapshots, but partly constructions from their mother’s imagination. An anecdote about Jessie takes place when she was dressing for an exhibition of the the family pictures. She realized that a sleeveless top she was considering would expose her chest if she raised her arms and so she rejected the garment. A friend remarked how odd it was that she should be concerned since there would be numerous photos showing her chest at the show. Then Jessie responded, “Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.” Children can indeed distinguish between the production of an image and the real thing.

Sally Mann - White Skates (1990)

Sally Mann – White Skates (1990)

Sally Mann - Holding the Weasel (1989)

Sally Mann – Holding the Weasel (1989)

Many today might feel that Sally Mann and her family have been vindicated. They rode the rough waters of celebrity and controversy, the adult children continue to make their way in life and Sally is still pursuing her art. But one unrecognized effect of the thoughtless rhetoric has been that many good family photos have still not reached the public. This subject was discussed in What Remains, but whenever the family mulled over the possibility of another book or exhibition, there was the inevitability of answering the same tiresome questions and they became discouraged. Perhaps someday we will see them when our society respects real artists and galleries regard them as more than just an opportunity to make money.

A favorite image of mine is Steven Cantor’s parting shot in Blood Ties. In it, Virginia is saying that she wishes her mother would take a picture of her right now.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (3)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (3)

Thank you Virginia, Jessie, Emmett, Larry and Sally for your courage, generosity and irrepressible human spirit.  -Ron

Sally Mann photography (official site): some of the unseen family photographs may be coming to light here.

Jessie Mann (official site)

Pigtails posted a this delightfully irreverent image a while back.

An excellent collection of reproductions of Sally Mann’s work were published in a Christie’s catalog for an auction held on October 7, 2009 and copies have been sold on the secondary market.

I have done my best to give a good overview of this artist, with an emphasis on the children, but Mann’s work is such a linchpin to many issues regarding art, child rearing, nudity, psychology, social justice, commerce and privacy that these will have to be discussed in a supplement post later.

[160108] A colleague has informed me of a scholarly article about the Mann photographs entitled “Public/Private Tensions in the Photography of Sally Mann” by Sarah Parsons.  It is worth a look for anyone interested in the work of this artist and how it has affected the family dynamic. -Ron

The Final Nail in the Coffin (revised)

Because of the paradigm of childhood innocence, there are a number of juxtapositions that most people would find odd or outright disturbing. In one interesting case, U.S. prosecutors solved an embarrassing problem because of the sight of children smoking marijuana.

A couple of years ago, I watched the documentary Square Grouper which told three tales of marijuana smuggling in Florida. Square Grouper is a euphemism for the bundles of marijuana that would wash ashore when smugglers jettisoned their cargo under the pursuit of drug enforcement authorities.

The first story was about a group that called itself The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. Based in Jamaica, its members believed that marijuana—which they referred to as ganja—was a sacramental herb and an essential part of Church ritual. The remarkable thing about this sect is that it was very conservative and believed in the strict obedience of women and no homosexuality, birth control or masturbation. And yet it was progressive in its belief in the brotherhood of white and black men. When white men from the United States first began to visit Jamaica, it was recognized that some way had to be found to bring ganja into the U.S. and a smuggling operation began. It eventually was so economically successful that it became the top source of income for the Jamaican government.

U.S. Church members finally acquired enough wealth to purchase a compound on Star Island in Miami Beach in 1975, much to the consternation of the neighbors. The rapidly growing group began to get complaints because of the large disruptive influx of new “followers” and the dense smoke wafting onto the neighbors’ properties. A number of law enforcement agencies began surveilling the compound and would arrest Church participants, but would have to release them later as they argued on the grounds of freedom of religion (First Amendment) and could afford the best lawyers in the area. This was an embarrassing situation for the authorities as news agencies covered the activities of the Coptics. In an attempt to convince the neighbors of their holy intentions, they were invited for a visit and that’s when the appalling vision of children smoking large amounts of ganja was witnessed by outsiders.

Billy Corben - Square Grouper (2011) (1)

Billy Corben – Square Grouper (2011) (1)

Billy Corben - Square Grouper (2011) (2)

Billy Corben – Square Grouper (2011) (2)

When these images hit the airwaves, the public outrage gave the authorities the political cover to arrest and convict leaders on charges of drug smuggling.

There are two important lessons to be had here. 1) No matter how righteous a group thinks its position is, success does require a certain political aptitude and a recognition of the prevalent public perception. 2) Emotional reactions to images or situations will overrule even the most skilled attempts at rational argument.

[15/09/16] When I informed Pip about doing this post, he told me about an issue of Life that had a picture of children smoking.  It was from a special edition called ‘The Journey of Our Lives’ in October 1991.  It featured images from cultures all over the world who practice a range of rituals associated with life transitions: birth, maturity, marriage and death.  Since all versions on the internet were of poor quality, we tracked down an issue so we could bring it to you here.  These girls were shot just outside of Kingston, Jamaica partaking of “wisdom weed” for the first time.

Daniel Laine - (From Life Magazine) (October 1991)

Daniel Laine – (From Life Magazine) (October 1991)

Telling it like it is: Victoria Grant

As I have mentioned many times, I watch a lot of documentaries. There is so much about the world that does not make it past the mainstream media filters. The internet is a blessing in that regard because it makes alternative information more accessible to the general public. Pigtails in Paint is a case in point.

I came across a short video produced in 2012 of a speech by 12-year-old Victoria Grant about the nature of the banking system and how money works. Naturally, this is a well-rehearsed speech but I think the point is that the key concept is simple enough to be understood by most reasonably educated young people. Efforts by economists to make certain aspects of this system seem complex when they are not is really a cynical diversion to keep the public from realizing just how obviously unjust it is. Grant has followed up on this theme in subsequent years.

Victoria Grant and the Public Banking Institute - Public Banking in America (2012)

Victoria Grant and the Public Banking Institute – Public Banking in America (2012)

You can see the whole speech here.

Delight in the Ordinary: Joseph Cornell

This is really a follow up on the Joseph Cornell post Pip Starr made a couple of years ago. It is thanks to Pip that I got to learn about this artist. I made some small revisions to that post, but after viewing a key documentary, Worlds in a Box, narrated by Tony Curtis which aired on A&E, I felt there was enough new relevant information to warrant this supplemental post.

Although the images here focus on Joseph Cornell’s (1903-1972) experimental films, he is best-known for his eclectic “sculptures” of collected objects arranged in boxes behind a pane of glass. Except for the 3½ years he spent at Phillips Academy Andover, he lived for most of his life in a small house in Flushing, Queens. And though he admired the French culture and collected many materials originating from that country, he never traveled there. Instead, he lived with his mother and his brother Robert, whose cerebral palsy rendered him chair-bound. This condition was a motivating force in Cornell’s artistic development. He felt a strong sense of responsibility for his brother and made ongoing efforts to keep him entertained. In one of his earliest efforts, he took one of his mother’s powder boxes, erected three needles to prop up loose thimbles, added mirrors on the inside surface and holes along the side so that one could peer through to see a “thimble forest” of infinite reflections. What distinguishes these sculptures from the more conventional is that they are not mere compilations of nostalgic objects, but almost always included moving parts that were meant to be handled by the viewer. He took great pleasure in his frequent trips to Manhattan to acquire materials from the various bookstores and thrift shops there. He only began to receive significant sums for this work after a 1949 show at the Charles Egan Gallery.

Cornell’s inclusion of children was not incidental. A psychoanalysis of the man might suggest a kind of perpetual childlike wonder as he tried to imagine things from Robert’s point of view. As he got older, it was as though he longed to be an active participant in children’s activities but could never contrive an excuse to actually do so. He epitomized the Victorian sentimental view of children—observing and enjoying these precious creatures from afar. In his interaction with women assistants, artists and friends, he usually asked for pictures of them as children ostensibly for use in one of his boxes. He was more reticent when engaging with actual children though. In one instance, a little girl to whom he had lent one of his boxes, came to him announcing that she was bored with it. He promptly took it back, went into his garage and pulled out another—which by this time was quite valuable. He simply told the girl that he wished this one would be more satisfactory. His last major exhibition was a show he arranged especially for children, with the boxes displayed at child height while serving cake and soft drinks.

In another effort to entertain his brother, Cornell would cheaply acquire films that had been neglected in warehouses. His earliest obsession was an obscure film, East of Borneo (1931), and when the brothers got bored with it, Cornell would reedit the film—creating whole new storylines. The lead actress, Rose Hobart, was one of his obsessions and as a result of his efforts, the short silent film named for her was produced in 1936. Later, he collaborated with another artist to shoot his own films in some of New York’s public spaces. Much as some people might meditate on the wonders of the universe while sitting and watching ocean waves crash on the beach, Cornell was moved by the bustle of city life—spending hours watching the comings and goings at Grand Central Station. Even seemingly mundane things fascinated him—for example, observing pigeons on the ground and in flight (The Aviary,1954 et al). Two works are of particular interest here: Children’s Party (c1938) and Nymphlight (1957). The Godiva-like scene shown in the earlier Pigtails post appears at the end of the earlier film. Although it is not possible to view all relevant material on YouTube because of copyright restrictions, a fuller collection of his work on DVD can be purchased from The Voyager Foundation.

Joseph Cornell - Children's Party (c1938) (1)

Joseph Cornell – Children’s Party (c1938) (1)

Joseph Cornell - Children's Party (c1938) (2)

Joseph Cornell – Children’s Party (c1938) (2)

Joseph Cornell - Children's Party (c1938) (3)

Joseph Cornell – Children’s Party (c1938) (3)

Joseph Cornell - Children's Party (c1938) (4)

Joseph Cornell – Children’s Party (c1938) (4)

Joseph Cornell - Children's Party (c1938) (5)

Joseph Cornell – Children’s Party (c1938) (5)

Like most artists, Cornell was highly critical of his own efforts; he seemed never to be happy with the results of his filming endeavors, except in one case. Apparently while shooting, a girl in a blue dress was caught in the frame and the cameraman was instructed to keep tracking her as she flitted about for a short time—never realizing she was being filmed. There are many scenes showing children playing or going about their daily business, but this was his favorite. The scene became integrated into the film Nymphlight which was built on the premise of a young girl rushing home in the early morning after a long night of dancing.

Joseph Cornell - Nymphlight (1957) (1)

Joseph Cornell – Nymphlight (1957)

In 1969, Cornell gave a collection of both his own films (and the works of others) to Anthology Film Archives in New York. A few years after his death, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation was established, tasked with administering the copyrights of Cornell’s works and representing the interests of his heirs.

He Killed the Song: The Marina Experiment

This disturbing story reminds me of a Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell where he retells a Pygmy parable about a boy who finds the bird of the most beautiful song in the forest. He brings it home and asks his father to bring food for the bird. The father refuses to work to feed only a bird and at some point, he kills it. The moral is that the man killed the bird and with the bird, he killed the song and with the song, himself.

Pip first told me about the strange story of Marina Lutz (b. 1958) and at the time, I could not do much about it as it was late 2012 when Pigtails in Paint was shut down. It appears that Abbot Lutz (1917-1985), the father, had become obsessed with his daughter and compulsively recorded the first 16 years of her life. Over a decade after his death, Marina found a huge archive of materials: film, audio and over 10,000 photos. Far from being a precious record of a beloved child, the material actually revealed a kind of psychological abuse, particularly that of neglect. It is hard not to feel the emotional impact when examining this story and serious thought needs to be given before a fair judgment can be made. Some issues I bring up here have been discussed online, but many that I find particularly relevant, were not.

Marina’s therapist was the first to be exposed to the work. Short films were composed to illustrate some point about Marina’s childhood to the therapist. The source materials were compelling and Marina was encouraged to submit a short film to various film festivals in 2009. The reception was favorable and she actually received a couple of awards. Like the Vivian Maier photographs, this work was never meant for public viewing and so ethical issues arise about its use. On the one hand, this is the private efforts of one man, but considering the unhealthy environment that was fostered, there can be some justification that this work might be used for Marina’s therapeutic benefit and bring light to something that exists in the dark recesses of the dysfunctional family life of many women. Since Marina is the subject, it seems reasonable that given both her parents are dead, that she should be at liberty to engage in this sort of self-exploitation. Abbot’s material is strictly documentary so if there is any artistry, it is due to Marina’s efforts.

With the volume of material to go through, what made her choose what she did? Marina explains in interviews that she watched every film, listened to every audio tape and examined each photograph. Her explanation of what was chosen is that those things which had the most hurtful impact were used. She edited the film in such a way to maximize and more clearly communicate the emotion she felt when viewing them. It was clear in many of the images that she was irritated by the invasion of her privacy but over time, she must have became numb to the experience as though she were a deer in headlights.

Abbot Lutz/Marina Lutz- The Marina Experiment (c1970/2009)

Abbot Lutz/Marina Lutz- The Marina Experiment (c1970/2009)

It might be fairly said that many artists (including some covered on this site) have had a kind of obsession with their children and involved them in their art. But the critical distinction here is that in a loving family, the children are engaged in a relationship with the parent—sometimes remembering the photo sessions as a fond part of their emotional bonding. In contrast, Abbot’s cold observation gave me the distinct impression that he rarely if ever gave his daughter physical affection that would communicate a sense of being loved. When first sifting through the source material, a friend of Marina’s commented that it was as though she were a lab specimen and thus the title “The Marina Experiment” was coined. The most wrenching part for me is a recording where Abbot asks Marina to sing. His clear prioritization of propriety over love is reflected in his incessant interruptions in correcting Marina until she finally gives up—no longer wishing to sing the song.

On the official website, Marina shares some of her thoughts about the experience and she makes the suggestion that she was regarded as an object of sexual desire. But I believe that such a passionate reaction implies a warmth not consistent with his personality. In 1949, Abbot did solicit the participation of women to engage in erotic photography, but whatever emotional stirrings that may have implied were converted to cold fascination by the time Marina came along.

All told, I don’t believe most of the superficial observations made in this case have been especially insightful. Certainly, I am glad that many women have been able to come forward with their stories and take solace that their experiences were not unique or mere figments of their imagination. And I am glad that skeptics have come forward to caution us about the dangers of attributing sinister intent on Abbot’s part. Dysfunctional families exist and the peculiarities of their members can be expressed in bizarre and unhealthy ways. It also makes for an intriguing story to tell and I only hope that Marina can find a kind of emotional closure for herself that will give her some freedom from the shackles of her past.

The Marina Experiment: Part 1 (Marina’s original intent was to produce three parts)

Marina Lutz interview

2012 Commentary on The Novel Activist

Advent of the Attack Ad

In the United States, tomorrow is an election day. A couple years ago, I saw this interesting ad featuring a little girl. It was a scare tactic to get voters to vote for President Johnson in the 1964 election. His principle opponent, Barry Goldwater, was regarded as a warmonger and expressed a willingness to use nuclear weapons. It was designed to impress upon voters the gravity of their decision during a period of nuclear brinksmanship.

Tony Schwartz - Daisy Ad (1964)

Tony Schwartz – Daisy Ad (1964)

What I did not realize at the time was its historic importance as a landmark in political elections and that many believed it was responsible for Johnson’s landslide victory. Although the Johnson campaign staff was condemned for airing this powerful but indirect ad hominem attack, some commentators credit it for opening the door to the more vicious examples we see today. The ad was aired only once on September 7, 1964 and featured two-year-old Monique M. Corzilius counting the petals on a daisy before cutting to a missile launch countdown. You can read more on the “Daisy” Ad on Wikipedia where you can also view the entire ad.

Alpha Girls and Secret Agents

It occurred to me after working on Pigtails in Paint for a short time that it was too easy for people to regard the appeal of little girls as a superficial exploration. I knew in my heart that there was some unspoken importance to this phenomenon, but that it would be hard for the general public to take it seriously. I decided to make a conscious effort to include more overtly socially-relevant posts, starting with ‘The “V” Word’. Naturally, Pigtails was not going to shy away from the more intimate, charming and controversial expressions of little girls, but I did not want it to be just another showcase of eye-candy.

Little did I realize that after the posting of ‘State-of-the-Art Exploitation’, there would be an almost unending series of serious issues involving little girls—and by extension, women. I have recently discovered a number of university lectures that can be viewed online by Professor Sut Jhally of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). Jhally’s work makes me think of where I might be in the years to come. Like me, he has been a prolific reader and viewer of documentaries. Because he watches and analyzes the media intensely, he has an amazing collection of images and videos—some of which he helped produce—that he uses to illustrate his talks. His expanding contribution to the analysis of the modern market economy and how it influences our culture is too great to cover here, so readers can expect me to make periodic ongoing references to Jhally’s scholarship.

One of the most shocking revelations has to do specifically with little girls—what marketers refer to as “tween girls”. I already mentioned in ‘State of the Art Exploitation’ that one of the most important markets is children, but until now, I had not realized that it was the most important market. Children influence the purchasing choices of adults amounting to over $300 billion per year. With the advent of television, marketers began to realize that they could have exclusive access to a malleable and influential demographic. Saturday morning and after school shows began to advertise toys and other products for children. Of particular concern was the ubiquitous presence of unhealthy sugary cereals in targeted programming. In response, Action for Children’s Television (ACT), established in 1968, began to petition the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action about this distressing exploitation of the most naive members of our society. In 1977, the FTC proposed some seemingly reasonable guidelines, but the powerful food industry fought back hard and through its influence turned the FTC into the impotent agency it is today. What few concessions might have been made to ACT evaporated during the Reagan Administration’s mania for deregulation. A powerful illustration of the importance of little girls in market analysis is a program called the Girls Intelligence Agency. A special news report on this organization was aired on CBS—some of which can be seen in a film called Consuming Kids (2008).

Kim Kennedy - from CBS's Born to Buy? (c2005)

It is remarkable to think that billions in marketing dollars are spent on the decisions girls as young as 8 make. On the surface, this may seem empowering to girls, but when analyzed carefully, the fact is that companies are just using these girls as a relatively cheap source—cheap for the research companies, not their clients—of market research.  As shocking as this development may seem, there are companies that do something called ethnographic research where psychologists essentially stalk—with parental consent and compensation—children to observe how they interact with products, even following them into the bathroom to note their behavior during bathing or showering! An excellent book on the modern paradigm of children’s marketing is Born to Buy (2005) by Juliet B. Schor. Schor also adds that although the parents of the alpha girl sign a permission form and are aware of the nature of the event and are compensated, none of the guests are.  Any time your little girl is invited to a large slumber party, you may want to double-check what is really going on.

Also of great relevance is Jhally’s analysis of gender roles in society. Particularly, the escalating portrayals of masculinity offer some clues to the latest hysteria about child nudity and sexuality and readers can expect some of these points to appear in future posts as well.

Relevant Sut Jhally lectures here, here and here
Official Sut Jhally website
Media Education Foundation (MEF) videos website