A Guide to Sally Mann’s Provocative and Powerful Photography

As her exhibition "A Thousand Crossings" opens in Salem, we examine the themes and principles that define the American image-maker's singular oeuvre.

Sally Mann, “Bloody Nose” (c 1991). Collection of Sally Mann

We’ve all seen that photograph. A girl — young but curiously ageless at the same time — looks knowingly at the camera, her blonde hair carelessly swept. She slings one arm defensively over her white summer dress, the other haughtily holding what looks to be a cigarette. The photograph, Candy Cigarette — the title confirming the true nature of the suspect object — is one of a number of photographs by the American photographer Sally Mann that instigated widespread moral panic in the early 1990s. The series, entitled Immediate Family, consisted of monochrome portraits of Mann’s young children taken at her family farm in Virginia, on an 8 x 10 inch, large format camera. The source of the outrage was the unflinching nudity of the children, their sullen expressions and the stark, unmanicured nature of the scenarios depicted. The divisive quality of the images was so extreme that it prompted one New York Times Magazine journalist, Richard Woodward, to write a damning cover story, “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann”, which drummed up national outrage.  

Sally Mann, Bean’s Bottom, 1991. Private collection.

Since then, Mann has mostly shed the accusations of vulgarity provoked by the unveiling of Immediate Family. Nowadays, the series is more commonly recognised as a breath-taking tour de force in black and white portrait photography — one that brings into play the medium’s fraught relationship with fact and fiction. Rather than underscoring the undoubtedly provocative aspect of her work, the exhibition Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, which opens this weekend at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, highlights the frequently poignant and poetic nature of her imagery. Debuting earlier this year at the NGA in Washington, A Thousand Crossings centres on the resounding themes in Mann’s work: family and parenting; race and  history; memory and desire; death and mortality, and, in particular, nature and the land. Indeed, more than anything, this exhibition spotlights the most significant player in all of Mann’s work: the American South.

Here, to celebrate the opening, and in recognition of the singular and suggestive intensity of Mann’s photography, we explore the themes and principles that define her unique practice. 

1. A powerful sense of place

Sally Mann, Deep South, Untitled (Scarred Tree), 1998. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund.

The swampy landscape of the American South saturates Mann’s oeuvre. The photographer, who was born and raised in Lexington, Virginia, captures shadowy patches of water spliced with murky light, or dark forests crowned with a canopy of branches. In one image, Deep South, Untitled (Scarred Tree) from 1998, the trump of a tree is dashed with a wound-like mouth. This eerie example of pareidolia alludes to the intense and powerful, almost human-like grip of the South on Mann; the landscape, much more than simply soil and water, is akin to an animate, potent being. Mann tries to articulate just what it is about the South in her bestselling memoir, Hold Still. Here, she describes it as both “alluring” and “repellent… like fruit on the verge of decay”.  Mann’s photographs are an effort to unite the South’s sublime beauty with its marred, melancholic past.

2. An intimacy with her subjects

Sally Mann, Easter Dress, 1986. Courtesy of Patricia and David Schulte.

In 1985, Mann famously began to photograph her three young children — Emmett, Jessie and Virginia — at their farm along the Maury river, near Lexington. From nosebleeds to bedwetting to bathing in the river and playing among the damp fauna of the Southern wilderness, the photographs chronicle the youngsters’ growing-up. At its best, photography should reveal what otherwise goes unnoticed, and Mann’s family photographs make apparent the complexity of childhood — the fluctuant moods of the children, their growing bodies and tender emotions, their wildness and independence, their strength and vulnerability. Mann presents her children as brilliant, bubbling individuals, who possess streaks of darkness as well as light, combining innocence and knowledge. Frequently, these are uncomfortable images — their pale, bony nudity and fearless expressions render the viewer speechless — however, their rawness can be considered a testament to the intimacy between photographer and subject. It is important to note that, through her lens, Mann’s children became precisely that: “subjects”. For Mann, there is a fundamental divide between the fiction of the photograph and the fact of real life. As she writes in Hold Still, “These are not my children, they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time”.

3. Constant trial and error

Sally Mann, The Ditch, 1987. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Even in today’s era of Photoshop and arranged Instagram flat lays, authenticity — “natural” or candid photography — continues to be privileged by many as the Holy Grail. This is particularly apparent in art photography where images are expected to be the result of some divine artistic intervention as opposed to genuine effort . Although Mann’s photographs of her family are often considered as intimate “snapshots”, in most cases they are anything but. In Hold Still, Mann describes herself as a “terrier [in] pursuit of the perfect picture”, and outlines the arduous process involved in capturing one particular photograph of her son, Emmett, emerging from shallow, turbid waters. Over the duration of a balmy September week, Mann took photo after photo of the same scene slightly altered each time. Before she produced an image that she was happy with, she discarded endless “failures” containing too much light or shadow, too many trees, or not quite the right body position. Mann believes that photography often requires “a Herculean effort” — the genesis of a perfect photograph emerges through trial and error. In contrast, she regards the spontaneous images, the moments of magical happenstance, to be “celestial gifts”.

4. Making the ordinary extraordinary

Sally Mann, Oak Hill Baptist 01:01, 2008-2016. Collection of the artist.

“Part of the artist’s job is to make the commonplace singular, to project a different interpretation onto the conventional,” says Mann. Although Mann is famous for photographing surroundings that are familiar to her, her images make strange the scenarios and locations of everyday life. Frequently, an eerie fog descends on her scenes lending otherwise unthreatening landscapes a haunting, impenetrable quality. Rivers and trees, or classic American clapboard bungalows transform into artefacts from a history or time that the viewer is not fully privy to. While this might sound like she spends hours lingering in mysterious locations to capture the ideal, mist-blurred shot, Mann wholeheartedly believes that good photographs “can be made everywhere” — even in the most minute moments of day-to-day life.

5. Acknowledging the transiency of life

Sally Mann, Semaphore, 2003. Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Since the earliest days of photography — when photographs were most commonly made of the deceased — the medium has been intimately connected with mortality. Originally, photographs were momento mori, a treasured keepsake to commemorate the passing of a loved one, and the photography of Mann continues this tradition. By her own admission, Mann regards herself to be obsessed with death, believing that an awareness of life’s transiency incites a greater appreciation for life itself. “I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing,” she says. Mann sees beauty in the dark side of things — the whiff of death and decay in the American South is what makes the landscape so spectacular. She is attune to the force of death in the dank soil, or in the aching muscles of her ageing husband (as in her 2003 image, Semaphore). Her photographs, many of which are best described as elegiac,  breathe and beat with the heavy weight of memory and desire. Mann does not understand photographs to be static preservations, however, but maintains that their singular power resides in their ability to “supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating memories of their own”.

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings opens at The Peabody Essex Museum on June 30.

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