Iconic for her intimate and controversial images of her children, as well as, her haunting but beautiful landscapes of the American South, contemporary photographer Sally Mann’s images have resonated their influence in the history of photography. Though only 65, Mann has accomplished a great deal throughout her life, including a handful of critically acclaimed published books followed by many extraordinary exhibitions. Mann’s work has sparked controversy as well as critical acclaim: whichever the viewer’s opinion lies, it is no doubt that Mann’s influence has sparked curiosity and awe from her exceptional and distinguished photographic style.
Sally Mann was born and raised in Lexington, Virginia where she was introduced to photography when her father photographed her nude as a young girl. Mann was fascinated by her father’s 5x7 large format camera, which led her to love large format photography. Mann started photographing when she attended Putney school where she graduated in 1969. She also attended Bennington College, Friends World College, and in 1975 she received an M.A. in creative writing. Mann married her artist turned lawyer husband, Larry Mann, in 1969. Together they had three children, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, who Sally would extensively photograph during their childhood. However, it was her first exhibition that helped her gain some recognition from the surrealistic images she was making.
In 1977, Sally Mann had her first solo exhibition in Washington, D.C. with images from her first published book, Second Sight. It was her 1988 second publication (Aperture) called, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, which led to some controversy. At Twelve is a photo-book about the emotions of coming-of-age young women who are developing their identities. American novelist Ann Beattie writes in the preface of the book, “The girls still exist in an innocent world in which a pose is only a pose--what adults make of that pose may be the issue.” Sally Mann’s images in At Twelve do not glamorize the world by showing the girl’s youthfulness, but instead focus on each of their individual strength and how that carried over in the image Mann captured.
Following Mann’s At Twelve, she started photographing her young children, which led to her third series, Immediate Family. This collection of images was first exhibited by Chicago’s Edwynn Houk Gallery in 1992. She instantly gained recognition by many from these images. In a 1992 New York Times article, Richard B. Woodward writes, “Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world.” The images in Mann’s Immediate Family consisted of many black and white photographs of her three children and where they played outside naked by the river of the Mann’s family cabin. Her images were taken with a large 8 by 10 bellowed-view camera, which forced her to have her children lie still within their poses.
Sally Mann states that, “Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastical, but most are of ordinary things that every mother has seen.” A 2009 ASX article explains, “To depict what childhood truly is, Mann utilizes reality in a select few of her images. However staged this reality may be, she is dealing with what being a child means; and the fiercely private nature of bed-wetting, chickenpox and bloody noses.” But the controversy of this work lies in the suggestive titles paired with her images, accusations of promoting child pornography, and the presentation of the adolescent form.
In the New York Times, Woodward describes, “The nudity of the children has caused problems from many publications, including this one. When The Wall Street Journal ran a photograph of then-4-year-old Virginia, it censored her eyes, breasts and genitals with black bars . . . And Mann’s images of childhood injuries -- Emmett with a nosebleed, Jessie with a Swollen eye -- have led some critics to challenge her right to record such scenes of distress.” Mann and her family were upset with the censorship and reaction to these images. Virginia was extremely upset and wrote a letter to the author saying, “Dear Sir, I don’t like the way you crossed me out.” However, to many other viewers, people have viewed Mann’s photographs as the truths of childhood through the lens of a maternal eye.
Many have acclaimed Mann’s Immediate Family to be one of the best photography books in history and others have been greatly inspired by the honest and intimate quality of these images. Through it all, Sally Mann never expected all the controversy over her images of her children. She states it was simply maternal when she focused on her children growing up. In 2001, TIME writer Reynolds Price states, “Mann recorded a combination of spontaneous and carefully arranged moments of childhood repose and revealingly--sometimes unnervingly--imaginative play. What the outraged critics of her child nudes failed to grant was the patent devotion involved throughout the project and the delighted complicity of her son and daughter in so many of the solemn or playful events. No other collection of family photographs is remotely like it, in both its naked candor and the fervor of its maternal curiosity and care.”
After her fourth book, Still Time, Mann started using 8x10 glass plate negatives with wet plate collodion to photograph landscapes around the American South as well as landscapes around Virginia and Georgia. These images became two different landscape series: Deep South and Mother Land. To create these photographs she used antique large format cameras with the wet plate collodion process. This process created many natural flaws on the physical images, something which Mann played off of in her series. Because of the process and camera, her landscape images are ethereal and haunting in their presentation. While working with the wet plate collodion process images she has described the process as “hybrids of photography, painting, sculpture.”
In the early 2000’s, Mann started photographing the remains of her greyhound dog, Eva. She stated, “That was when I learned how efficient death is. After 14 months, the skeleton had been picked completely clean.” She then became interested in the decomposition process of bodies, which led her to create her fifth book, What Remains. This collection of images not only consisted of her dog, but also decomposing bodies from a body farm, also known as a federal forensic anthropology facility. These images contain details of body’s decomposition process. This body of work highlighted her interest in death, something that was seen through her earlier photographs. Blake Morrison writes in a Guardian article, “Even the photographs of her children are littered with memento mori: a dead deer in one, a dead weasel in another. In truth, though, Mann’s lively obsession with death--her capacity to be unsqueamish about it while seeing its thumbprint everywhere-originated back in early childhood. Her father was a country doctor who had seen his share of death and who liked to say there were three subjects of art: sex, death and whimsy.”
After photographing the bonds between parent and child, landscapes, and death, Sally Mann shifted her lens when her husband Larry was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in her series and Aperture book, Proud Flesh. This series was exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City in 2009. These images were also made with the wet-plate collodion process, which naturally created scratches and scuffs on the physical image in which, as stated in the press release, the scratches and imperfections “. . .become inseparable from the physical reality of Larry’s body.” The book states that Mann’s actions of photographing her husband engage in “. . . territory most often inhabited by male artists portraying their wives and female lovers.” The images, profound, beautiful in quality, are heartbreaking, trusting, and intimate all at the same time.
Throughout her life, Sally Mann’s photographs have always questioned and challenged their viewers. She has been extremely successful throughout her lifetime as well as controversial, but nonetheless one of the most successful contemporary photographers of her time. Sally Mann was awarded best photographer by Time Magazine in 2001. Her work has been in major exhibitions at Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Her work has been both publically and privately collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She is a Guggenheim Fellow (1989) and a three-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her critically acclaimed 2015 book, Hold Still: A Memoir in Pictures, was a finalist in the National Book Award, but won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction in 2016. She is currently represented by the Gagosian Gallery and the Edwynn Houk Gallery both in New York City.
As Reynolds Price best describes Mann in an article in TIME Magazine, “Few photographers of any time or place have matched Sally Mann’s steadiness of simple eyesight, her serene technical brilliance, and the clearly communicated eloquence she derives from her subjects, human and otherwise--subjects observed with an ardor that is all but indistinguishable from love.”
Sally Mann currently lives and works at her home in Lexington, Virginia. You can check out her website to see more of her work and perhaps what she will be creating next!
Written by Alexis Hagestad
Image Copyright: Sally Mann
Thumbnail Image: Sally Mann Portrait by Michelle Hood