Magazine article Artforum International

Sally Mann: Hayhook, 1989

Magazine article Artforum International

Sally Mann: Hayhook, 1989

Article excerpt

It's the background of Hayhook that has always fascinated me, or rather the contrast of that background--so humdrum, so silent--against the startling sacrifice at center. The photograph achieves its power through a series of contradictions, impossible companions that somehow, in this summer house, on this humid day, have become reconciled to their cohabitation. First there are the adults, torpid, hairy, and fat, lounging about in the gloom, as oblivious to the nearby martyrdom as a band of Roman centurions playing dice at the foot of the Cross. The children inhabit another world altogether, an inspired world. The smaller, standing girl looks like a cherub playing a flute. She also recalls certain plump children in Dutch painting, the broken eggs at their feet (symbolizing the loss of virginity) replaced by a snorkel. The photograph is full of oppositions; the composition has the casual quality of a snapshot, yet it's quite stagy. The trees bracket the central action like proscenium arches. The Z framework in the door is as dramatic a flourish as the mark of Zorro. Look in the window, into what might be the kitchen, at the little hanging object that repeats, like a shadow, the figure of the hanging girl.

What people always miss are her hands. She isn't impaled on that hook; she has it in her grip. Her ankle bracelet, her tensed arm muscles, suggest not so much a victim--or not only a victim--as a performer, a gymnast. She herself is a double figure, as is the world of the photograph--a reflection back and forth between myth and reality, adulthood and childhood, pleasure and pain. That girl isn't only dying; or, to reverse Stevie Smith's famous phrase, she's not only drowning, but waving. She's the sharpest image in the photograph, therefore the most real. But she's also artificially lit. Nobody glows like that. Mann has dodged the negative, or let the background burn in, or set up a spotlight that illuminates not only the girl but the floor beneath her. The result is a ghost more vivid than the living. The sexuality of the girl's pose disturbs those people who take from the photograph nothing of its muggy atmosphere, its river smell, but only the affront of her highlighted vulva. …

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