Sally Mann, a renowned American photographer, is the recipient of numerous awards and was named “America’s Best Photographer” by Time magazine in 2001. Her works are held by numerous prestigious institutions worldwide and she is the author of several books including At Twelve (1988), Immediate Family (1992), Still Time (1994), What Remains (2003), Deep South (2005), Proud Flesh (2009), The Flesh and the Spirit (2010), Remembered Light (2016) and Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings (2018). She lives in Virginia, America and is represented by Gagosian Gallery, New York (Sally Mann, 2020)
“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.”( Price, TIME)
A controversial and large body of work, photographed by Mann between 1985-1994, consists of her three children- Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, taken at their family cabin in the Shenandoah Valley, West Virginia. The images in this body of work convey scenes from everyday life, evoking the tranquility of unhurried days exploring nature in the nearby woods, rivers and fields. Mann recorded both the everyday activities of childhood as well as probing its psychic complexities. In her imagery of her family, one can witness a range of emotions like beauty, bravado, sensuality, and tenderness as well as anger, confusion, and the struggle between attachment and independence. Taken both candid and staged, these images were a collaboration between her children and her (The Getty Museum, 2020)
Sixty of these photographs were published in the book titled Immediate Family in 1992. Its representation of nude children, and its focus on the challenges of growing-up raised quite a controversy in terms of parental authority, artistic license, and the distinction between public and private images. Despite its controversial nature, the book was widely acclaimed at its stark and unsentimental depiction of childhood (The Getty Museum, 2020)
(Mann, 1992)Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things every mother has seen.
Something strange is happening with the family pictures. The kids seem to be . . . receding into the landscape. . . . I have been ambushed by my backgrounds.(Mann)
As her children stepped into adolescence, Mann gradually turned to photographing the surrounding landscape, starting with the rivers and woods near her home in Lexington, Virginia, later venturing further deep south to Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. For more than four decades, Mann created a vast body of imagery that is experimental and hauntingly beautiful, exploring the themes of existence such as family, desire, mortality, memory, and nature’s indifference to the human condition. She has extensively explored and examined the tension between her devotion to her native region, Lexington, Virginia, and its unpleasant past. Her photographs often pose provocative questions dealing with identity, history, race, and spirituality; for example her work ‘A thousand Crossings’ that explores the legacy of the South that is instrumental in shaping the artist’s career. Mann’s work, as can be seen in the examples below, much like Weston’s work and his simplistic photos of common everyday objects, teaches us to look deeper than the surface of the ordinary things that we come across daily. (The Getty Museum, 2020)
Mann’s work is the kind that touches oneself deep within – it could be the simplicity, the exquisite and ethereal quality of the light within it or the haunting feeling that it evokes. She is able to capture the intrinsic qualities of light beautifully and so effortlessly in her photographs. Striving for emotions rather than facts in an image, Mann strives to appeal to the emotions of her audience. As per Mann, she believes that her best work comes when she pushes herself to do better, a quality that I can so relate to. Pushing herself out of her comfort zone is another quality that I can relate to of hers. Mann goes on to say how you have to overcome your fear of the picture and go ahead and take it. Quoting Malcolm Gladwell from his book, she believes like him that in order to master anything, it is important to spend a minimum of ten thousands hours on that thing. That is what separates the really great artists from the one-time wonders (ASX, 2020).
Mann believes that it is alright not to know in advance what your path is going to take you. She will not hesitate to take that first picture because she finds it visually fascinating and then build up on it and its surrounding context. and that is how, according to her, her projects find her. Another thing that she strongly believes it is in the power of an artist. She is of the opinion that we, as artists, have the gift of looking at the world differently and therefore it becomes our duty to reinterpret the world in a way that is enlightening and enriching, and therefore feeding the intellectual curiosity of the viewer’s mind – to challenge and provoke them perhaps leading them to even change their situation. Mann’s own mandate is to create beautiful art that is meaningful and to make the ordinary resonate with her viewers in a universal way (ASX, 2020).
After acquiring an 8 × 10 inch view camera in 1973, Mann went on to perfect her technique with the cumbersome equipment over many years. Most of her family pictures were made using this camera and a B&W film. Around 1990, however she also occasionally used a handheld 2 1⁄4 inch square-format camera with colour film to explore the dramatic potential of colour. She further experimented with her technique while traveling, by using a faulty antique lens that created flares and other unexpected and unpredictable results. Her technique was a mixture that included the usage of high contrast B&W film that exaggerated both the lights and the shades to a 19th century method of making negatives on glass, using the flaws within the technique to introduce an element of expressive effect (The Getty Museum, 2020)
For her photographs of rural churches from 2008-16, she used her 8×10 inch camera with a high contrast film and printed them on expired photographic paper that she liked for their tonal unpredictabilities. The resulting images made the churches appear one with nature while others seem to have an ethereal quality, because of her use of antique lenses that were unable to capture extreme contrasts of light (The Getty Museum, 2020)
The last two decades have seen Mann make several photographs that reflect on reflect on mortality, life’s fragility, and her family. She photographed her young adult children between 2002-2004 at close range with exposure times up to 3 minutes, recalling the postmortem photographs of the nineteenth century.
A serious horseback-riding accident in 2006 led Mann to begin a series of self-portraits that hinted at the experiences of pain, ageing and disintegration. Also, she aimed her camera on to her husband who is suffering from muscular dystrophy, probing the devastating effect of the disease on his physique. In her own words, these works convey the artists belief that loss “is designed to be the catalyst for the more intense appreciation of the here and now.”
Key points and learnings from Mann’s works-
- Atmospheric feel to the images.
- Mystical and ethereal feel of images.
- Experimental, simple, clearly communicated eloquence.
- Technical brilliance by using old techniques and lenses to create unpredictable results.
- Hauntingly beautiful and exploratory in nature.
- Exploration of multiple themes like family, desire, mortality, memory, and nature’s indifference to the human condition.
- Look deeper than the surface of the ordinary thing.
- Her best work happens when she pushes herself.
- Loves to capture the intrinsic qualities of light into her pictures – creating layers and mystery within her otherwise ordinary subjects.
- Strives for emotions rather than facts in her images.
- In order to master a thing, it’s important to spend ten thousand hours on it.
- Its ok not to know your path before and let your intuition and love guide you.
- It’s the artists duty to feed the intellectual curiosity of the viewer’s mind – to challenge and provoke them.
- Create beautiful art that is meaningful.
- Make the ordinary resonate the viewer in a universal way.
- Experimental and unique ways of using equipment and prints to create unpredictable results.
Fig 1, Mann, S. (1986) Easter Dress, 1986, Sally Mann, Gelatin Silver Print. Collection Of Patricia And David Schulte. © Sally Mann. [image] At: https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/sally_mann/inner.html (Accessed1/09/2020).
Fig 2, Mann, S. (1989) Candy Cigarette, 1989, From Immediate Family. [image] At: https://publicdelivery.org/sally-mann-immediate-family/ (Accessed1/09/2020).
Fig 3, Mann, S. (1987) The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987. [image] At: https://www.artsy.net/series/artworks-changed-lives/artsy-editorial-artwork-changed-life-sally-manns-immediate-family (Accessed1/09/2020).
Fig 4, Mann, S. (1992-2004). Untitled. [image] At: https://www.sallymann.com/southern-landscapes (Accessed 1/09/2020).
Fig 5, Mann, S. (1992-2004). Untitled. [image] At: https://www.sallymann.com/southern-landscapes (Accessed 1/09/2020).
Fig 6, Mann, S. (1992-2004). Untitled, Nialls River, Georgia [image] At: https://www.sallymann.com/southern-landscapes (Accessed 1/09/2020).
Fig 7, Mann, S. (1992-2004). Untitled, Swamp Bones [image] At: https://www.sallymann.com/southern-landscapes (Accessed 1/09/2020).
Fig 8, Mann, S. (2008-2016) Beulah Baptist [image] At: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-color-of-humanity-in-sally-manns-south (Accessed 3/09/2020).
Fig 9, Mann, S. (2008-2016) Oak Hill Baptist [image] At: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-color-of-humanity-in-sally-manns-south (Accessed 3/09/2020).
Fig 10, Mann, S. (2008-2016) St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal. [image] At: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-color-of-humanity-in-sally-manns-south (Accessed 3/09/2020).
Fig 11, Mann, S. (2004) Triptych, 2004, Sally Mann, Gelatin Silver Prints. The Sir Elton John Photography Collection. © Sally Mann. [image] At: https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/sally_mann/inner.html (Accessed 3/09/2020).
Fig 12, Mann, S. (2012) Untitled (Self-Portrait), 2012, Sally Mann, Tintypes. The J. Paul Getty Museum. © Sally Mann [image] At: https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/sally_mann/inner.html (Accessed 3/09/2020).
Fig 13, Mann, S. (2012) c, Sally Mann, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund. [image] At: https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/sally_mann/inner.html (Accessed 3/09/2020).
Getty Museum. (2020) The Getty Museum. At: https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/sally_mann/inner.html (Accessed 2/09/2020).
Jones, M. (2017) How Photographer Sally Mann Found The Light. The Daily Beast. At: https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-photographer-sally-mann-found-the-light (Accessed 1/09/2020).
Mann, S. (2020) Southern Landscapes — Sally Mann. At: https://www.sallymann.com/southern-landscapes (Accessed 1/09/2020).
Rong, J. (2013) An Exclusive Interview With Sally Mann – “The Touch Of An Angel” (2010). AMERICAN SUBURB X. At: https://americansuburbx.com/2013/01/interview-sally-mann-the-touch-of-an-angel-2010.html (Accessed 1/09/2020).