“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.”
– Reynolds Price, TIME (http://sallymann.com/about)
I first learned of Sally Mann in the spring of 2014, while enrolled in one of my photography classes at RISD (Designing Through The Lens). After reviewing some of my images, the teacher urged me to watch Sally Mann’s documentary and take a look at her work. She told me that my family photographs reminded her of Mann’s series, Immediate Family (1992).
It is fascinating how one’s path can meander, fork, or be led to stray, by a single encounter or experience, opening the soul to a whole new world. The class I took last year did exactly that. As I studied photographers I was unfamiliar with, such as Mann, I began to see my own inner passion for photography and a new direction presented in my life. I began to push myself to take images in a more abstract, less constrained way, which forced me to reach beyond myself. I saw many things differently for the first time, awakening a more openminded understanding of things I may have previously judged harshly.
Sally Mann was born in 1951, in Lexington, Virginia, where she lives and works today. Mann has explored color photography, but seems most strongly attracted to the use of black and white, also keeping alive many antiquated techniques and equipment. Her photographs are commonly shot with an 8x10 bellows camera, and the platinum and bromoil printing processes fits comfortably within her skill set. In the mid 1990s her use of the wet plate collodion process produced pictures that almost seem like hybrids of photography, painting, and sculpture. She has won numerous awards. The documentary film about Mann's family pictures was nominated for an Academy Award in 1993. Her list of publications include Second Sight, At Twelve, Immediate Family, Still Time, and What Remains. Her photographs are laced throughout many public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Sally Mann’s lifelong residence in the American South has produced a body of work through which she reveals her innate understanding of the region. Since the 1970’s, she has been prolific in portraiture, architecture, landscape, and still life. Her evocative landscapes and the intimate portraits of her husband and young children are esteemed works of great renown. The series, Immediate Family, features her three children. Within this collection, Mann frames a penetrating look into their daily lives, interspersing themes of death and latent sexuality.
“Extraordinary, intimate photographs of her children reveal truths that embody the individuality of her own family yet ultimately take on a universal quality. With sublime dignity, acute wit, and feral grace, Mann’s pictures explore the eternal struggle between the child’s simultaneous dependence and quest for autonomy—the holding on and the breaking away. This is the stuff of which Greek dramas are made: impatience, terror, self-discovery, self-doubt, pain, vulnerability, role-playing, and a sense of immortality, all of which converge in these astonishing photographs.” (books.google.com/books/about/Sally_Mann.html?id=DEeVQmEACAAJ)
Delving into Mann’s work, I truly felt a connection to my own work and to my childhood. My own memories of living in the southwest, Oklahoma and Texas, with my nine siblings are stirred by her images. She recalls to me our barefoot lifestyle, running around playing house, acting as adults, wanting to smoke cigarettes (although my mother would have forbidden the thought). It was not uncommon for my younger sisters and brothers to run freely, naked through those long, hot summers. In the south it’s such a common thing. My mother has many snapshots of us kids running around undressed in the relaxed privacy of our yard. In Mann’s images her children seem very close, as if best friends. This is another attribute I can relate to from my childhood, and in raising my own children. I appreciate where she was coming from, and the beauty she apprehended in taking the photos of her children.
One of my favorite images, ‘The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude’, by Sally Mann, 1987, is a powerfully dramatic image of boyhood surrounded by nature. The look in Emmett’s eyes is one I’ve seen so many times in my own boys’. It is as though he is annoyed by being photographed, yet he owns it by his posture, his glare, and the way his hands direct the flow of water, the eye of the observer. Strong and serious, his piercing gaze attaches itself to the consciousness of the viewer. My eye is first drawn into is his eyes, then to his hands, then to the reflective water, and up through the middle of the image to the lighter trees. Smooth; serious; feeling; balanced, and thoughtfully leading me through the picture, to the middle, into the distance, and back around to the boy.
The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude - Sally Mann, 1987