Sally Mann is an American photographer, best known for her large black-and-white photographs—at first of her young children, then later of landscapes suggesting decay and death.
Born in Lexington, Virginia, Mann was the third of three children and the only daughter. Her father, Robert S. Munger, was a general practitioner, and her mother, Elizabeth Evans Munger, ran the bookstore at Washington and Lee University in Lexington. Mann graduated from The Putney School in 1969, and attended Bennington College and Friends World College. She earned a B.A., summa cum laude, from Hollins College (now Hollins University) in 1974 and a MA in creative writing in 1975. She took up photography at Putney, where, she claims, her motive was to be alone in the darkroom with her boyfriend. She made her photographic debut at Putney, with an image of a nude classmate. Her father encouraged her interest in photography; his 5x7 camera became the basis of her use of large format cameras today.
After graduation, Mann worked as a photographer at Washington and Lee University. In the mid-1970s she photographed the construction of its new law school building, the Lewis Hall (now the Sydney Lewis Hall), leading to her first one-woman exhibition in late 1977 at the Corcoran Gallery of Artin Washington, D.C. Those surrealistic images were subsequently included as part of her first book, Second Sight, published in 1984.
Her second collection, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, published in 1988, stimulated minor controversy. The images “captured the confusing emotions and developing identities of adolescent girls [and the] expressive printing style lent a dramatic and brooding mood to all of her images.” In the preface to the book, Ann Beattie says “when a girl is twelve years old, she often wants – or says she wants – less involvement with adults. […] [it is] a time in which the girls yearn for freedom and adults feel their own grip on things becoming a little tenuous, as they realize that they have to let their children go.” Beattie says that Mann’s photographs don’t “glamorize the world, but they don’t make it into something more unpleasant than it is, either.” The girls photographed in this series are shown “vulnerable in their youthfulness” but Mann instead focuses on the strength that the girls possess.
In one image from the book (shown to the right), Mann says that the young girl was extremely reluctant to stand closer to her mother’s boyfriend. Mann said that she thought it was strange because “it was their peculiar familiarity that had provoked this photograph in the first place.” Mann didn’t want to crop out the girl’s elbow but the girl refused to move in closer. According to Mann, the girl’s mother shot her boyfriend in the face with a .22 several months later. In court the mother “testified that while she worked nights at a local truck stop he was ‘at home partying and harassing my daughter.’” Mann said “the child put it to me somewhat more directly.” Mann says that she now looks at this photograph with “a jaggy chill of realization.”
Mann is perhaps best known for Immediate Family, her third collection, published in 1992. The NY Times said, “Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world.” The book consists of 65 black-and-white photographs of her three children, all under the age of 10. Many of the pictures were taken at the family's remote summer cabin along the river, where the children played and swam in the nude. Many explore typical childhood themes (skinny dipping, reading the funnies, dressing up, vamping, napping, playing board games) but others touch on darker themes such as insecurity, loneliness, injury, sexuality and death. The controversy on its release was intense, including accusations of child pornography (both in America and abroad) and of contrived fiction with constructed tableaux.
Negative criticism of Mann's works is not hard to find. One man, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, was against Mann’s photographs. He believes that parents should do everything in their power to protect, shelter, and nurture their children. He says that “selling photographs of children in their nakedness for profit is an exploitation of the parental role and I think it’s wrong.” Another negative criticism was found in Raymond Sokolov’s article Critique: Censoring Virginia in the Wall Street Journal. He talked about whether federal money should be given to the arts and whether or not children should be photographed nude. In the article, he used an image of Virginia (Virginia at 4) to illustrate it and he covered her eyes, nipples, and pubic region with black bars. Mann said he used the image without permission “to illustrate that this is the kind of thing that shouldn’t be shown.” Mann was devastated and insulted that someone could mutilate her photograph like that. Virginia was also upset about the article. She wrote a letter to the author saying “Dear Sir, I don’t like the way you crossed me out.” Mann said that after Virginia saw the article, she started touching herself on the areas that were blacked out saying “what’s wrong with me?”
Many of her other photographs containing her nude or hurt children caused controversy. For example, in The Perfect Tomato, the viewer sees a nude Jessie, posing on a picnic table outside, bathed in light. Jessie told Steven Cantor during the filming of one of his movies that she had just been playing around and her mother told her to freeze, and she tried to capture the image in a rush because the sun was setting. This explains why everything is blurred except for the tomato, hence the photograph's title. This image was likely criticized for Jessie’s blatant nudity and presentation of the adolescent female form. While Jessie was aware of this photograph, Dana Cox, in her essay, said that the Mann children were probably unaware of the other photographs being taken as Mann’s children were often naked because “it came natural to them.” This habit of nudity is a family thing because Mann says she used to walk around her house naked when she was growing up. Cox states that “the own artist’s childhood is reflected in the way she captures moments in her children’s lives.” One image that deals more with another aspect of childhood besides "naked play", Jessie's Cut, shows Jessie's head, wrapped in what appears to be plastic, with blood running down the side of her face from the cut above her left eye. The cut is stitched and the blood is dry and stains her skin. As painful as the image looks, there are a great number of viewers who could relate to Jessie when they think about the broken bones and stitched up cuts they had during childhood.
Mann herself considered these photographs to be “natural through the eyes of a mother, since she has seen her children in every state: happy, sad, playful, sick, bloodied, angry and even naked.” Critics agreed, saying her “vision in large measure [is] accurate, and a welcome corrective to familiar notions of youth as a time of unalloyed sweetness and innocence,” and that the book “created a place that looked like Eden, then cast upon it the subdued and shifting light of nostalgia, sexuality and death." When Time magazine named her “America’s Best Photographer” in 2001, it wrote:
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 daughters 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.
The New Republic considered it "one of the great photograph books of our time."
Despite all of the controversy, Mann was never charged with the taking or selling of child pornography, even though, according to Edward de Grazia, law professor and civil liberties expert, “any federal prosecutor anywhere in the country could bring a case against [Mann] in Virginia, and not only seize her photos, her equipment, her Rolodexes, but also seize her children for psychiatric and physical examination.” Mann always put her children's well-being first. Before she published Immediate Family, she consulted a Virginian Federal prosecutor who told her that some of the images she was exhibiting could have her arrested. She decided to postpone the publication of the book in 1991. In an interview with New York Times reporter, Richard Woodward, she said “I thought the book could wait 10 years, when the kids won’t be living in the same bodies. They’ll have matured and they’ll understand the implications of the pictures. I unilaterally decided.” The children apparently did not like this decision and Mann and her husband arranged for Emmett and Jessie to talk to a psychologist to be sure their feelings were honest and so that they understood what the publication would do. Each child was then allowed to vote on which photographs were to be put in the book. To further protect the children from “teasing,” Mann told Woodward that she wanted to keep copies of Immediate Family out of their home town of Lexington. She asked bookstores in the area not to sell it and for libraries to keep it in their rare-book rooms. Dr. Aaron Esman, a child psychiatrist at the Payne Whitney Clinic believes that Mann is serious about her work and that she has “no intention to jeopardize her children or use them for pornographic images.” He says that the nude photographs don’t appear to be erotically stimulating to anyone but a “case-hardened pedophile or a rather dogmatic religious fundamentalist.”
Her fourth book, Still Time, published in 1994, was based on the catalogue of a traveling exhibition that included more than 20 years of her photography. The 60 images included more photographs of her children, but also earlier landscapes with color and abstract photographs.
In the mid-1990s, Mann began photographing landscapes on wet plate collodion 8x10 glass negatives, and again used the same 100-year-old 8 x 10 bellows view camera that she had used for all the previous bodies of work. These landscapes were first seen in Still Time, and later featured in two shows presented by the Edwynn Houk Gallery in NYC: Sally Mann – Mother Land: Recent Landscapes of Georgia and Virginia in 1997, and then in Deep South: Landscapes of Louisiana and Mississippi in 1999. Many of these large (40"x50") black-and-white and manipulated prints were taken using the 19th century “wet plate” process, or collodion, in which glass plates are coated with collodion, dipped in silver nitrate, and exposed while still wet. This gave the photographs what the New York Times called “a swirling, ethereal image with a center of preternatural clarity," and showed many flaws and artifacts, some from the process and some introduced by Mann.
Mann’s fifth book, What Remains, published in 2003, is based on the show of the same name at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC and is in five parts. The first section contains photographs of the remains of Eva, her greyhound, after decomposition. The second part has the photographs of dead and decomposing bodies at a federal Forensic Anthropology Facility (known as the ‘body farm’). The third part details the site on her property where an armed escaped convict was killed. The fourth part is a study of the grounds of Antietam, the site of the bloodiest single day battle in American history during the Civil War. The last part is a study of close-ups of the faces of her children. Thus, this study of mortality, decay and death ends with hope and love.
Mann’s sixth book, Deep South, published in 2005, with 65 black-and-white images, includes landscapes taken from 1992 to 2004 using both conventional 8x10 film and wet plate collodion. These photographs have been described as “haunted landscapes of the south, battlefields, decaying mansion, kudzu shrouded landscapes and the site where Emmett Till was murdered." "Newsweek" picked it as their book choice for the holiday season, saying that Mann “walks right up to every Southern stereotype in the book and subtly demolishes each in its turn by creating indelibly disturbing images that hover somewhere between document and dream."
Mann's seventh book, Proud Flesh, published in 2009, is a study taken over six years of the effects of muscular dystrophy on her husband Larry Mann. The project was displayed in Gagosian Gallery in October 2009.
Mann's eighth book, The Flesh and The Spirit, published in 2010, was released in conjunction with a comprehensive show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. Though not a retrospective, this 200 page book includes new and recent work (unpublished self-portraits, landscapes, images of her husband, her children's faces, and of the dead at a forensic institute) as well as early works (unpublished color photographs of her children in the 1990s, color Polaroids and platinum prints from the 1970s). Its unifying theme is the body, with its vagaries of illnesses and death, and includes essays by John Ravenal, David Levi Strauss and Anne Wilkes Tucker.
Her current projects include a series of self-portraits, a multipart study of the legacy of slavery in Virginia, and intimate images of her family and life. The latter, entitled "Marital Trust," spans 30 years, and includes intimate details of her family life with Larry.
In May 2011 she delivered the three-day Massey Lecture Series at Harvard. In June 2011, Mann sat down with one of her contemporaries, Nan Goldin, at Look3 Charlottesville Festival of the Photograph. The two photographers discussed their respective careers, particularly the ways in which photographing personal lives became a source of professional controversy. This was followed by an appearance at the University of Michigan as part of the Penny W. Stamps lecture series.
In 1969, Mann met her husband Larry, and they have three children together: Emmett, born in 1979, who for a time joined the Peace Corps, Jessie (herself an artist, photographer and model), born in 1981, and Virginia (now a lawyer), born in 1985. Mann lives on a farm in Virginia with her husband, Larry. He is a full-time attorney, and has muscular dystrophy, with progressive weakness.
Mann is passionate about endurance horse racing. In 2006, Mann's horse ruptured an aneurysm while she was riding him. In the horse's death throes, Mann was thrown to the ground and the impact broke her back. It took her two years to recover from the accident and during this time, she made a series of ambrotype self-portraits. These self-portraits were on view for the first time in November 2010 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as a part of Sally Mann: the Flesh and the Spirit.
She is currently represented by the Gagosian Gallery of New York City, and the Edwynn Houk Gallery also of New York City. The latter has a show of Mann's works opening September 13, 2012.
Her works are included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of New York City among many others.
Time magazine named Mann "America's Best Photographer" in 2001. Photos she took have appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine twice: first, a picture of her three children for the September 27, 1992 issue with a feature article on her "disturbing work," and again on September 9. 2001, with a self-portrait (which also included her two daughters) for a theme issue on "Women Looking at Women."
Mann has been the subject of two film documentaries. The first, Blood Ties, was directed by Steve Cantor, debuted at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Short. The second, What Remains was also directed by Steve Cantor. It premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Emmy for Best Documentary in 2008. In her New York Times review of the film, Ginia Bellafante wrote, "It is one of the most exquisitely intimate portraits not only of an artist’s process, but also of a marriage and a life, to appear on television in recent memory."
Mann received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the Corcoran Museum in May 2006. The Royal Photographic Society (UK) awarded her an Honorary Fellowship in 2012.