Picks and Pans Review: At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women

updated 10/17/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Sally Mann

Mention the subject of this book—photographs of 12-year-old girls—and some men will smirk and dig an elbow. Oh, Humbert, your book is here. But in the presence of Sally Mann's photographs even the most cynical would have to desist. Not that they would be unmoved. These are portraits of girls on the cusp of sexual maturity, often aware of their attractiveness. But they aren't displaying themselves to titillate. Rather, they seem to be sharing with Mann their state of self-knowledge, showing what they have begun to take possession of—physically and emotionally, with pride, joy, uncertainty or defiance—as females. Trust is the main ingredient in making portraits this intimate. Mann shot the book's 37 black-and-white photographs in Lexington, Va., where she grew up (her father was town doctor for more than 40 years) and where she lives with her husband and three children. Mann's pictures—shot with an 8x10 view camera—have a sensuous gravity of print tone, composition and grainless clarity that her subjects inhabit with a sensuous gravity of their own. Their gaze turns the viewer's gaze back on itself. As novelist Ann Beattie says in her introduction, speaking of the girls, "... what they mirror for the viewer, with their attitudes and their dead-on eye contact, is us. We are their mirror, they are ours." If what they reveal of themselves is often lovely, touching, here rapturous and there coquettish, the "dead-on eye contact" also asserts that it is theirs alone. At Twelve might move Lolita's Humbert Humbert to tears, but it would also chasten him and teach him more respect. (Aperture, $25)

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