Sally Mann's Candy Cigarette: An Analysis
Sally Mann’s Candy Cigarette is one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century. Featuring a young preteen girl gazing directly into the camera, cigarette in hand, the image is striking and resonates with the viewer in its drastic color contrasts. Through her clever use of background images and subtle body language, Mann is perhaps telling the story of a defiant young woman straying from the straight and narrow path.
The distinct white path in the background is the viewer’s first clue. A pale white in a largely dark and brooding photograph, it represents a certain way or path of life. Perhaps it’s the way the girl’s parents raised her, or perchance it’s her conscience urging her to make a particular decision. Either way, she’s rejecting it, facing towards the camera with her back to the path. This stands in sharp contrast to the slightly out of focus girl to the right, and the boy on stilts in the background, both of whom are facing towards the path. Perhaps these are her siblings, serving as examples in an attempt to change her mind.
Can the viewer tell if the girl is turning away from a good or evil path? Yes, certain details and colors strongly suggest the path is a good one. A white picket fence surrounds a home; a bride is traditionally dressed in white. White knights come to the rescue and white lists are accepted or approved items: White is associated with positivity, purity, safety and innocence. The girl is rejecting all of this, the white path. Ironically, she’s clothed in white, suggesting a sort of dry paradox to her decision. While others may clothe her in innocence and purity and point her in a specific direction, it’s ultimately up to her to accept or reject their prodding.
Rejection is evident not only in background images and colors but also in the subject’s body language, posture, and clothing. The viewer’s eye immediately wanders to the cigarette in the girl’s hand, a symbol of adulthood and all its seductive trappings. The photographer is playing off of taboos to illustrate her point. Also of note is the girl’s clothing: Frills on the dress, watch on the wrist and a butterfly insignia on the chest. A ring also decorates her left hand. She is playacting grown-up dress and behavior even as she starts to totter on the brink of adolescence. In contrast, both other children are wearing plain, everyday clothing.
Also of interest is her posture: Her arms are crossed, head tilted confidently towards the camera, away from the white path. The boy on the left, in contrast, seems to excitedly walk down the trail on stilts. He’s high up, on top of the world. Similarly, the girl to the right leans back, hands on her hips, appearing to be completely comfortable with her path. Clearly, the girl is set apart from her companions in not just her position, but her clothing and body language.
The differences don’t end there, though. Upon examination of the girl’s face, discrepancies continue to arise. While the viewer can’t see the other two children’s faces, one can see inconsistencies in their hair. While the subject’s hair is ruffled and unkempt, the girl to the right has her hair in a fairly neat, high ponytail. Interestingly, this also contrasts heavily with the girl’s otherwise sharp and put-together appearance, sticking out sharply against her jewelry and nice dress. This, especially combined with the cigarette, adds to the air of rebellion and defiance in the girl.
Perhaps, though, the girl’s defiant attitude has less to do with a rejection of the path and is meant to be symbolic of her transition out of childhood. Her jewelry, fancy clothes and particularly her cigarette are symbols of maturity and adulthood, starkly contrasting with her companions’ more carefree style. What, then, does the white road symbolize? It’s unclear, which leads this author to side with the first interpretation.
Ultimately, the photograph’s interpretation will vary with the interpreter. Different life experiences, worldviews, and outlooks on life will inevitably lead to some differences in analysis. However, in this writer’s opinion, the evidence strongly points to a rejection of something, be it an idea or path in life.
Do you agree with the author's conclusion?
© 2015 JB