Sally Mann – Immediate Family

Sally Mann is a photographer from rural southwestern Virginia, the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.   She took a series of photos documenting her children, Emmet, Jessie and Virginia’s childhood from 1984 to 1991.  She used damaged lenses and an 8 by 10 camera that required her using her hand as a shutter.

‘All my life many things have been the same.  When we stop by to see Virginia Carter, for whom our youngest daughter is named, we rock on her cool blue porch.  The man who walk by tip their hats, the women flap their hands languidly in our direction.  Or at the cabin: the rain comes to break the heat, fog obscuring the arborvitae on the cliffs across the river.  Some time ago I found a glass-plate negeative picturing the cliffs in the 1800s.  I printed it and held it up against the present reality, and the trees and caves and stains on the rock are identicle.  Even the deadwood, held in place by tenacious vines, has not slipped down.

There are some controversial shots, which Mann comments:

‘These are pictures of my children… Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things every mother has seen.  I take pictures when they are bloodied or sick or naked or angry.  They dress up, they pout and posture, they paint their bodies, they dive like otters in the dark river.’

Personally I can see where both crtics and Mann are coming from.  I adore how photography can help capture a memory with a vivid visual aid.  I don’t think there is any particular time that taking a photograph in would be vulgar, they’re not just to record happy occassions or to prove you’ve been to certain landmarks.  But perhaps some of these photos should have been kept private, they’re her children, not the World’s.  A few of these photos are very maternal but the innocence is no doubt interpretated differently by some other adults.  Such as this disturbing interpretaion/review:

‘The sensuality in Mann’s work is unavoidable. She sees the innate sexuality of her children where others would shy away from it. She glorifies it. In the image entitled “Popsicle Drips”, we see a young, male torso, stained with liquid dripping down his lower abdomen to his thighs. His hips are sensually thrown to the side, and his arms are fully out of view. Upon first glance, it is an incredibly disturbing image, for two reasons. One, without the title, this liquid substance could be anything. My first impression of it was blood, and the second was feces. When reading the title, it makes a bit more sense, but one has to wonder, how did the popsicle drips get down there?

It opens up an entire line of questioning on how staged this image really was. Secondly, this image is the only one in the entire body of work that details male full-frontal nudity. This comes as a shock to those who were not expecting it, and it causes more of a discomfort than that of the full-frontal nude female. This image is highly provocative in its subject’s pose, and the added popsicle drips adds an element of touch and tangibility for the viewer. Gender is an issue that many people bring up when dealing with Mann’s work.’

I don’t want to focus on this aspect but I feel I should mention it, if I’m going to be writing a post about ‘Immediate Family’ instead of just leaving those pictures out and just glossing over all the controversy.  I’m not outraged, but I’ve not felt the need to really think about it or have to form an opinion.  But I do think you should not publish naked photographs of your children.  If it’s yourself as a child, fair enough, but even though it’s your child I don’t think you have any right to be doing it, it’s their choice.  Just put some clothes on them!  They’re not going to be young and innocent forever, they’re going to want modesty one day, or at least their own control over it.  Also there is a photo of one of her children sleeping naked and she’s wet the bed – that’s just too, too far.  Anyway, none of the following photos I am going to share are of that controversial kind.

Mann clearly does not care about what other people think or interpret her as.  Her father, she says was ‘quiet and unassuming in his persona and extravagant in his vision, his mannared and courtley behaviour improbably paired with unapologetic self-indulgence.’  He was an atheist and her and her brothers were the only children in the school required to sit in the hallway during Bible study.  Her family, she says were ‘simply, different.’ ‘Finally, we all came to believe what Rhett Butler told Scarlett: that reputation is something people with character can do without.’

Here is a small excerpt from her book:

Rank.  But you can see how her views have formed.  He had thirty acres of land with giant oaks, ponds and orchards.  She describes herself as ‘a feral child running around naked with the pack of boxers.’   Does she mean underwear from M&S someone gave her? Here put these on you poor child.


‘Memory is the primary instrument, the inexhaustible nutrient source; these photographs open doors into the past but they also allow a look into the future.’

‘There’s the paradox: we see the beauty’ and we see the dark side of things.’ ‘The Japanese have a word for this dual perception: mono no aware.  It means something like ‘beauty tinged with sadness’.  How is it that we must hold what we love tight to us, against our very bones, knowing we must  also, when the time comes, let it go?’

I like them because they are haunting.

‘Candy Cigarette’

‘The New Mothers’

‘Squirrel Season’

‘Damaged Child’

‘Eyeless in Col Alto’

‘Drying Morels’

‘Jessie And The Deer’

‘Playing In The Pines’

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4 Responses to Sally Mann – Immediate Family

  1. I love Sally Mann’s work… it haunts me! But it is so beautiful at the same time! Did you know her oldest daughter, Jessie Mann, is an artist as well… I came across her website the other day and was thrilled! Her work is pretty brilliant… it seems like she plays off her mom’s work. You should check it out! 🙂 Great post!

  2. Pingback: Sally Mann « Bloc de

  3. tj says:

    i love sally work because it bring back the art of the human body… which people see as art and not as not as something more.

  4. lori ann says:

    I’m writing a paper on Mann. Can you tell me where your quotes come from?

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