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Sally Mann's Candy Cigarette: An Analysis

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Read on for an explanation and interpretation of Sally Mann's "Candy Cigarette" photograph.

Read on for an explanation and interpretation of Sally Mann's "Candy Cigarette" photograph.

Who Is Sally Mann?

Sally Mann (born 1951) is an American photographer from Lexington, Virginia. She graduated from Hollins University and originally rose to prominence with the publication of her Immediate Family series in 1992.

The book featured duotone images taken mostly during the 1980s in rural Virginia. The subjects are her own children, mostly doing everyday activities, but shot with a technique and in environments that suggest adult and existential concerns.

Part of Immediate Family's success was due to its then-controversial content. 13 of the 65 images in the book contained nudity, which led some people to accuse Mann of sexualizing her children. Mann found this stance ludicrous and called childhood sexuality an oxymoron. Mann actually waited for her children to get a bit older before publishing the book and allowed them to veto the inclusion of any photograph they objected to.

Some of the photographs also feature her children with injuries, such as black eyes and a nosebleed. Some portions of the public also thought this was the mark of a bad mother, for who would photograph their injured child? Mann objected, saying that these are things any mother sees in ordinary life.

"Candy Cigarette" is perhaps the most famous photograph from Immediate Family. It shows Mann's daughter Jessie holding a candy cigarette in her fingers and facing the camera. In what follows, I'll give an explanation and interpretation of this image.

"Candy Cigarette" by Sally Mann.

"Candy Cigarette" by Sally Mann.

Interpretation and Analysis of "Candy Cigarette"

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 the camera with her back to the path. This contrasts sharply with the slightly out-of-focus girl to the right and the boy on stilts in the background, both facing toward 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 suggest the path is good. 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 for approved items. White is associated with positivity, purity, safety, and innocence.

The girl is rejecting all of this by facing away from 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 by her position, 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 girl's air of rebellion and defiance.

Perhaps, though, the girl's defiant attitude has less to do with a rejection of the path and is meant to symbolize 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, leading this author to disagree 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.

Further Info on Sally Mann and Her Work

Sources and Further Reading

© 2015 Nu Vew


Nu Vew (author) from Chicago on March 30, 2015:

Thanks :)

rebekahELLE from Tampa Bay on March 30, 2015:

The title caught my attention and led me in. Sally Mann is such a brilliant photographer. She is well known for these photographs of her children. The girl is playing, role playing what she's seen just as most young girls do. I remember making the same stance when I was a young girl. I don't know if this is one of her staged photos or if she simply caught the kids playing and took this incredible shot. I think she definitely wanted to capture the innocence of childhood, blurring the image to make it appear as a memory of days gone. You are absolutely correct in saying that a photograph will mean something different to viewers as we see it from own life perspective. I enjoyed reading your interpretation and was thrilled to see a Sally Mann hub on my feed!