Narrative theory – binary oppositions.

Emmett, Jessie and Virginia, by sally Mann

“Levi Strauss argued that an abiding structure of all meaning-making, not just narratives, was a dependence on binary oppositions, or a conflict between two qualities or terms.”

(taken from the ‘media students book, Branston and Stafford, first published in 1996, fourth edition published in 2006 by Routledge)

In this entry I will use the technique of binary oppositions, and then follow through and discuss each categories position, and where it is visible in the image.

Male : Female

Innocence : Corruption

Dark : Light

Care : Neglect

Good : Evil

Nature : Culture

This is a difficult process, as you have to try to make each category link to each other in terms of good Vs Evil, and such forth, although this is difficult it makes you think about all the possible links within the image.

To begin with I put male on the left and female on the right, moving on I based the next categories purely on body language and facial expressions, therefore putting innocence with male, and corruption with female. The black and white refers to the tonal qualities within the image, the youngest, the female on the left, has much light on her, where as the boy in the middle is covered in shadow. Car and neglect was difficult, with little to base your arguements on, it is hard however I looked at the Jessie interview for this and also then referred to the image, and after all I decided to put care on the side of male and neglect on the side of female. I chose this way round mainly due to the persona’s that were constructed by the poses and facial expression of the girls within the image. The girls look more powerful, and almost if they have nurtured themselves, and don’t need caring for as much as the boy, Emmett.


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Study diary 3

After having done semiotic research on the image and found it very useful in making it clear the issues within the image, I am now going to look at another analysis technique. In a lecture not to long ago we looked at the technique of Narrative theory, In this lecture we concentrated on the thoughts and theories of Levi Strauss. He believed that all narrative had binary oppositions.

“Binary oppositions reduce the complexity of the world within our culture, ie. good evil, black white, male female, young old, east west.”

So now in turn, I shall try to discover what binary oppositions can be seen with the image, and further discuss the theory.

From semiotic, which I found very useful, it brought about questions and ideas which I had not yet thought about, so I shall eventually try to divuldge into these abit more.

  1. The gender role reversal within the image.
  2. Mann’s vision of children growing up.
  3. One idea that I didn’t include in the myth section, mainly due to the fact it is true to the series as a whole, and not necessarily just the ‘Emmett, Jessie and virginia’ image, is the way Mann’s images go against the ‘myth’ of childhood innocence.


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Semiotic analysis – Myth

So in previous entries I have looked at the Connotation and denotation stage of the semiotic analysis stage, and now I will try to look at the mythical elements within the image. The mythical stage is hard to understand and look into but i will try to explain as best I can.

In the third stage, Semiotics emphasises that our perception of reality itself constructed and shaped by the words and signs we use, in various social contexts. By dividing the world into imaginative categories, rather than simply labelling it, language crucially determines much of our sense of things.

(taken from ‘the media students book, Branston and Stafford, first published in 1996, fourth edition published in 2006 by Routledge)

So I will try to put what I have looked at within the image, the visuals, and try to see what mythical elements I can try to find or discover.

I believe one of the mythical elements to this image lies somewhere within the youth of the image. It is almost as if Mann is looking at the common qualities of children when they grow up. It is almost as if she is trying to document the loss of confidence or freedom as children develop. This could be one of the many mythical elements that are shown within this image, however I believe it to be one of the more powerful and important ones, especially when looking at the ‘immediate family’ series. Another mythical element that could be true is the way in which gender is perceived. I think it is interesting how the boy looks the most uncomfortable out of all the three, where as in society, one of the thoughts, especially at this time, was that male is the dominant gender. This could explain why the male is positioned in the middle, and also his height is much greater than that of the girls, however it is the girls who look more powerful. So in effect it could be that Sally Mann is contesting the idea of gender, and questioning whether males as a whole are more dominant.

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Semiotic Analysis – Connotation

After the Denotation stage, comes the connotation stage. This looks for meaning within the visuals that were looked at in the denotation stage.


Within the image there are many visuals which are of interest, to begin with I will look at the use of just black and white tones, this gives the image a feeling of age, it makes it seem older, as well as giving the image a more aesthetically pleasing image. This I believe to be an example I made in an earlier blog, the fact that the techniques that Sally Mann uses is what separates these family photos to that of all other families. The use black and white makes this photo special. Next I will look at the composition, the way she placed her children within the image. She has put the boy in the middle, making him almost the focus, however it is the girls who are posing more powerful. You could argue that this could purely be that the girls liked to play up to camera more than Emmett, this thought is further backed up by the Jessie man interview, where she speaks of Emmett’s discomfort in front of the camera. Or the placement of her children in this order, could be looking at the mythical elements of gender, this i will talk about in the next entry, the third stage of the semiotic analysis stage. The depth of field falls on the children, which makes the children the clear focus, the background is out of focus, however you can just see the outlines of trees, giving us the impression that this photo was taken outside. Within the image, you can see from the postures of the children their confidence. The youngest, on the left, Virginia, by far looks the most confident, with her chest pumped out and hands on her hips, looking very confident. It is funny this, as she is the youngest, however this thought about with the thought that the children are naked, or semi naked, you could argue that she is the more confident due to her innocence. You could argue that due to her age, she is yet to learn about the differences in gender, and the common expectations held up by society. We all can remember playing nude in our back garden, even if those memories are generated by embarrassing family photos, young people are confident within just their own skin. With the ‘wild’ look of all of the children, the image is given a very ‘natural’ feel, along with the background, and the nudity within the image, this all adds to the idea that these are ‘children of the earth’. Within the interview of Sally Mann with Charlie Rose, he talks of her living with her family all alone for miles around with just nature for company, and she then goes on to talk about how nature was the backdrop to so many of her images. We then pan right, from the youngest, to Emmett, who is the middle child, both in position and age. He has one arm across his stomach, which shows us his bands or decorations on his wrist. This can tell us many things, along with his facial expression, he almost looks less comfortable than the younger child, but looks at unease. Then is Jessie, who has her arms fully crossed and is almost scowling at the camera. From the poses of the children you could see that the girls are the more protective, and the boy is the less confident, however when looking at the image left to right, you are going across from youngest to oldest. You also go from a proud youngster, to an arms-crossed eldest. This could be trying to look at the development of children, and how when they get older, things are lost when trying to conform, or develop into something that society will accept.

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Semiotic analysis – Denotation

Semiotics, or semiology, is translated into the study of signs. Semiotics looks at the relationship between the signifier and the signified. To achieve this we must go through certain processes which help us first to see the ‘signs’, which then can be transformed into the signifiers. The three stages are, first, Denotation, which looks at the image and nothing else, almost a descriptive exercise, in which I will look at the image and try to describe it as best I can. After this stag, is Connotation, which looks to try to explain the denotation, by putting the descriptions, into meaning. And thirdly I will look at the mythical elements which are shown through her work. I will do this in three entries as to make it obvious as to where the divides happen.


Sally Mann, 'Emmett, Jessie and Virginia'

The photo above is by Sally Mann, and is of her children. The image was shot on an 8×10 view camera, and is in black and white. The image consists of three young children, one boy and two girls, the boy in the middle and the girls either side. All are topless, however it is hard to see whether the girls, are wearing anything on their lower body, due to framing, where as you can see Emmett’s shorts or trousers. The youngest is on the left, and is holding the most powerful pose, with her hands resting on her hips, and her chest pushed out. the eldest is on the right, and she has both arms crossed, looking less powerful, covered by shade. Emmett in the middle only has one of his arms crossed, so in fact going from left to right the children almost get less ‘powerful’, or striking.

Another point that is obvious when looking at the image, is that Emmett has many bands, or decorations along his wrist, where as the girls don’t, however Jessie, the eldest on the right, has a ring on her middle finger. All the children look almost dirty, worn, rugged and have an almost ‘wild’ look to them, this with the background helps to give the image a very rough image. The light upon the models is very inconsistent, almost as if some of the light is being intercepted by the tree leaves above.

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Study diary 2

Throughout the early stages of this blog, I was blogging quite consistently, however in recent weeks, with the build up of coursework, and meeting deadlines, my blog has taken a backseat, which in turn has caused major gaps in entries. This has definitely hampered my progress, and also has effected the future of the blog. I now am finding it difficult to remember my leads, and where i was going to go next!

This has made me think again about not using the technique which many others have used, where they leave questions at the end of each entry. However Im still against the idea, as I believe it doesn’t look good, and also i like the freedom it leaves to go where you like after each blog. This is the only problem I have hit in this blog, however we have recently studied semiotics and Narrative analysis. So Im going to look at these analysis techniques and see if they can show me something i havn’t seen or researched within my blog.

I am starting to believe that I have gathered a lot of information, and am quite happy at the general state of my research. Im also interested in the ‘At 12’ series, and this could be a possible lead. Although the critical review is about the image as a single image, so after looking at that, I should try to focus on the image alone. I also would like to look at the history, the time around which the image was taken, as if I can understand the period in which the image was taken, it might give me more leads to look into.

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Does taking intimate images of children, make them less sexual?!

In this entry I am going to look at a question I asked in my last blog:

Even though her models are young and under-developed, does that make the images less sexual?!

Sally Mann, Good night kiss, 'immediate family'


In this entry I am starting to touch more deeply on the arguement of child pornography, in reference to Sally Mann, however I will try to go deeper after this entry, further into my research.

Intimacy is a key part and theme in the ‘immediate family’ series of images, and hold the key to Sally Mann getting across her ideas through the pictures. The photos, dubbed as ‘pornographic’, are those of which a mother took lovingly of her children, getting about in their own lives, in their own house, with their own family. So then the question was asked as to whether Mann was right to take these photo’s ethically. The photo’s, as I have mentioned, caused outrage in some parts of America, causing critics to name the images as ‘immoral’, ‘wrong’ and indeed ‘pornographic’. One critic, Pat Robertson, gave his opinion on the topic, saying “Selling photographs of children naked for profit is immoral”. The arguement is very long, and many hold their own opinion on the matter, others argued that “Mann’s photographs are not erotic and clearly reflect a mother’s loving regard”. So as you can see there are two very strong arguements on the series that Mann produced.

Im going to take a step back from the arguement and look purely at the images within ‘immediate family’, and try to answer the question I asked myself at the top of this entry.

Jessie, At 12

A lot of Sally’s work is very sensual, and offers great feeling and warmth, this is often achieved through the lighting and the ‘dreamy background’ behind her subject. Although many of her images depict acts of sex, love or tenderness, they aren’t done in a ‘sexy’ way. Often her images have a subject with closed eyes, giving an idea they are completely immersed with their surroundings. Nature i think plays a big part in creating this feeling, and often is a big part of the image. With the family living on a farm, and that being the backdrop for her work, the surroundings offer a great sense of loneliness and freedom.

Punctus (after swim)

Its hard to explain the feeling you get when looking at Mann’s work, although its not obviously a ‘sexy’ or a ‘sexual’ image, the use of personal parts of the children’s bodies, make the images hold a darker element. The image above, couldn’t be described as sexy, or sexual, however definitely holds elements of these themes.

I could look at all of the images, however i see it as rather pointless, I feel as if Im starting to get a sense of my standing on the argument. The images are dark and definitely hold themes of a sexual nature, but I have started seeing them more as a mothers vision of her children, maybe technically better than that of most family photo’s, however there is still affection between the photographer, sally mann and her children, the models.

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