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'Some Things Are Private' reexamines a mother's controversial photos

Children should be seen, but exactly how they should be seen is the subject of a new play about a controversial artist

Email|Print| Text size + By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / February 10, 2008

PROVIDENCE - It can't be easy to have a play written about you.

Then again, photographer Sally Mann has been through a few firestorms in her career - most notably the uproar around "Immediate Family," her book of nude photos of her young children, published in 1992, which was met with cries of "Pornography!" and made her one of the top selling fine-art photographers of her time.

That controversy, and all the still-raw feelings around it, are at the heart of "Some Things Are Private," the new play at Trinity Repertory Company created by Deborah Salem Smith and Laura Kepley, who developed Trinity's acclaimed 2006 theatrical war docudrama, "Boots on the Ground."

Mann faced outrage head on when "Immediate Family" was published. The book features photographs - some spontaneous and some staged, some disturbing and all haunting - of her children. They grew up in the secluded patch of Virginia forest and farmland where Mann herself had come of age. Just as their mother had skinny-dipped when she was a kid, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia Mann hung out, quite comfortably, in the nude. In the Mann household, taking pictures was a family activity; the kids often collaborated with their mom to devise beautiful or interesting photographs.

In "Some Things Are Private," playwright Smith and director Kepley explore how Mann's photos continue to unsettle viewers, and how when viewers are uncomfortable, they may search for answers from the artist.

"From the title . . . I was expecting they would go back to that old canard, does the mother have a right to interfere in a child's privacy?" says Mann over the phone from her home in Lexington, Va. "But it's about how you look at art, and what right do you have to the artist him or herself?"

Should an artist have to answer for her work?

Mann, generally open and loquacious, answers bluntly. "No."

Yet she has answered for her work again and again.

"See, the way I go about making art is to just start, to start with nothing," she says in the play, in words drawn from the public record. "I'm almost like a blind man tapping along, sort of. I'll take a picture and then I'll say, huh, that's interesting. And I'll just follow it along. And here I was at home with these three kids underfoot, and eventually I began to see pictures."

But the photographs' content - popsicle drips on a boy's genitals, a girl staring doe-eyed at the camera with a swelling over her eye - upset many, who accused the artist of exploiting her children.

"I felt so passionately, I took a challenge on with a missionary zeal to convince them of the validity of the work and the health of the children," Mann explains by phone. She published "Immediate Family" with her children's consent - indeed, she'd planned to wait until they were older, but the kids objected. They had total editorial control. The artist asked bookstores near their home not to stock it, and local libraries to keep it in their rare-book rooms.

"I did that to protect my kids," says Mann in the play. "Because you know what they were really worried about? They didn't want to look like dorks. They didn't want to be geeks or dweebs. Nudity didn't bother them."

Public record

Smith and Kepley's journey toward "Some Things Are Private" began after noting instances of censorship in the news - in Colorado, a student's painting was banned from her school. In Pennsylvania, someone stole and burned a picture about Darwin's theory of evolution.

As with "Boots on the Ground," they created a workshop process to get a full range of responses to the theme. Even before the script was written, Kepley and Smith gathered members of the Trinity company and showed them images of art that, through the ages, have caused public outcry - starting with Michelangelo's David.

Among them was an image from "Immediate Family" of one of Mann's daughters at 4, nude and held between the hairy knees and arms of a man whose face we cannot see.

When Smith and Kepley polled the actors about which was the most beautiful work of art and which was the most unsettling, that image, "Rodney Plogger at 6:01," won on both counts.

"Her work walks the line," says Smith. "People want to know what happened to the kids."

Smith incorporated some of the actors' reactions into the script. Then she framed "Some Things Are Private" as a fervent conversation between Mann and a fictional character, Thomas Kramer, who grapples with images from "Immediate Family." Thrown by the sudden death of his wife and at a loss as to how to parent his young daughter alone, Kramer goes to a museum for solace, to see landscape photographs by Mann, one of his wife's favorite artists. Instead he's unnerved to find images from "Immediate Family."

What's this liquid dripped on the boy's genitals? Why does that girl have a swelling over her eye? Did someone hit her? That's what Kramer wants to know.

In a lofty rehearsal room at Trinity Rep, Anne Scurria as Mann and Stephen Thorne as Kramer go at it. Kramer is tense, even shrill. Mann, who spends some time in the play working in her garden, is earthy and direct.

"There are real dangers in the world and real fears we should have!" exclaims Kramer. "But you open a window and say look at us. Come in, you're part of the family."

Mann eyes him. "You're not part of the family."

"You say come in. . ." sputters Kramer. "Come into this real moment in our lives -"

"But it's not a real moment," Mann declares. "I don't think there's any veracity whatsoever in photography. . . . It's a 30th of a second slice out of someone's life."

Other characters weigh in, drawing out the shades of gray in what starts out as a black-and-white argument. Like Mann's words, many of theirs come from the public record.

Such as this letter to the editor in The New York Times: "My outrage is due to Mann's willingness to exploit her children in ways that clearly jeopardize their emotional growth."

Or this one, also to the Times: "Sally Mann's photographs of her children reveal a love of such ferocious intensity, no wonder people get scared."

Then there was the commentary by an arts editor at the Wall Street Journal, printed alongside the photograph "Virginia at Four," in which the newspaper put black bars over the nude girl's eyes, chest, and genitals: "Where does the innocent family snapshot differ from a naked picture sold to pederasts and prosecutable under the law?"

Over the phone, Mann sighs. "That body of work - my intentions were so pure, so naive," she says.

Smith and Kepley pored over interviews with Mann and statements she has made, and they cobbled together her dialogue largely from her own words. They offered her the script to read, and she worked with them to elucidate her position and make her speeches more fluid.

Smith says consulting with Mann on the script helped clarify her character: "There was a great moment on the phone, as we worked on a heated debate, where Sally said, 'Right here, I would say, "Look, Kramer." ' "

"She said, 'Oh, I know a lot of Kramers,' " Kepley adds.

Pursuing mysteries

Scurria wasn't shocked by Mann's photos; the actress had seen them before. "Her work becomes so personal, people can't deny it," says Scurria. "They don't want to deal with that personal stuff, so they get mad at her."

In fact, Scurria brings personal experience to her portrayal of Mann. Scurria's father was a sculptor and photographer; as a child she posed for him all the time, occasionally in the nude. "I spent a lot of time being very still growing up," Scurria says. "My father and I related through art. . . . I don't think it damaged me. The most damaging things are when you feel your parents don't care and aren't interested. That's damaging."

Smith, too, has known Mann's work for years. She owned "Immediate Family" in college. "I loved it and never saw it as controversial," she says.

Now a parent herself with an 18-month-old daughter and another baby on the way, she's reassessed Mann's work with even more sympathy.

"In some ways, I find the pictures freeing," Smith says. "These are real, complex beings, rather than idealized ones. You see the mysteriousness in our children, the idea that we can't know anyone completely, even them."

Mann's children are now grown and thriving. "That's the pudding that is the proof," the photographer observes. "As a parent, I didn't know. What if they hated these pictures when they grew up? I assume, now that they're in their late 20s, I'd know by now if they'd caused any problems."

Her daughter Jessie has grown up to be a collaborative model with photographer Len Prince. In the play, she's quoted speaking about her mother in an interview: "Each of those photographs was her way of capturing, somehow - if not in a hug or a kiss or a comment - how much she cared about us. Each one of those photographs is an affirmation of love."

The photographer continues to frame her world through a camera, including shooting intimate scenes from her marriage to lawyer Larry Mann - bathing, lovemaking, and other everyday activities. A reaction to one of those pictures caused a to-do after a slideshow Mann presented at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 2000. Someone wrote a letter to the governor, who scolded the museum for pushing the envelope of decency and instituted an oversight committee. Smith and Kepley recount the story in "Some Things Are Private."

Mann is now much more circumspect about the trials her art has put her through than she was when she had to defend not only her photographs, but her parenting. Still, she keeps photographing.

"Art's role - the role they raise in the play - is almost nefarious, it's to challenge expectation," she says. "To push a little bit, whether that's aesthetically, politically, or culturally."

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