If Sally Mann has a constant muse, it is her surroundings, with its two sometimes-overlapping components: her family and the land. Mann has consistently turned her camera on these two most immediate subjects, and the resulting images are at once ordinary and profoundly personal scenes.
Mann began photographing her three childrenEmmett, Jessie, and Virginiaevery summer from the time they were infants in the mid-1980s. This evocative, intimate body of work, aptly titled Immediate Family (198592), captures their playful, beautiful, and messy childhood lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Virginia. In certain cases, the photographs have a recognizable quality: “Some are fictions, some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things every parent has seena wet bed, a bloody nose, candy cigarettes.” Mann's representations of these ordinary moments, however, combined with the fact that she viewed the project as an intense collaboration with her children, makes her images far from typical family pictures. “We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality, and beauty. But we tell it all without fear and without shame.”
This clarity of purpose became increasingly important as the culture wars of the 1980s surrounded Mann’s photographs, particularly those in which her children appear nude. Concerns included the sale of such provocative works; gendered assumptions about a mother’s role as protector; the consent of the children; and the possibility that the pictures might prompt inappropriate actions. The very scope of issues that Mann’s images raised indicated their success in confounding viewers’ expectations, arousing unmentionable fears, and challenging assumptions about childhood innocence.
If these debates formed the cultural backdrop to the Immediate Family photographs, artistically they did not overshadow the actual setting of the images, many of which were made on the family farm or in Mann’s own childhood home. Rooted in her native landscape, Mann’s field of vision slowly expanded so that by the mid-1990s, her children had become but one component of a broader scene. She photographed her family’s farm directly, focusing on the river rather than employing it as a setting for summer idylls. Using her large-format camera and embracing the uncertain nature of 19th-century photo processes, the resulting images are dark, romantic, saturated views of the South, which bring to mind a paradise lost, a forgotten memory, or the setting of a William Faulkner novel.
Two years ago, Mann returned to photographing her children, who are now grown. Her continued use of antiquated techniques and the lengthy exposures they require have purposely afflicted these extreme close-ups with chanced flaws, hazy auras (even exhalations), and intense gazes. While different for their absence of context, the recent portraits nevertheless retain those elements that are so strikingly familiar from the most haunting of the Immediate Family pictures: the fierce sense of presence and its ensuing testimony to time’s passing that comes from Mann’s studied appreciation of those things held most dear.
Sally Mann, What Remains, directed by Steven Cantor, 2005.
At Twelve. Aperture, 1988.
Immediate Family. Aperture, 1992, 1994.
Motherland. Edwynn Houk Gallery, 1997.
What Remains. Bulfinch Press, 2003.
Deep South. Bulfinch Press, 2005.
Sally Mann. Gagosian Gallery, 2006.
back to top
Next artist: Larry Sultan