Photographing the American South since the 1970s, Sally Mann is best known for her poignant black-and-white photographs that capture the complexities of everyday life. In particular, she is recognised for her ethereal snapshots of childhood and landscapes permeated with memories of death.Read More
Born and raised in Lexington, Virginia, Sally Mann took her first photographs while attending The Putney School in Vermont between 1966 and 1969. She returned home to study creative writing at Hollins College and held her first solo exhibition, The Lewis Law Portfolio, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in 1977. Mann's early works in this show highlighted tendencies that would last throughout her practice, notably her preference for black-and-white photography over colour, a focus on landscape and portraits, and the strong contrast of light and shadow to create atmospheric and stirring images.
Mann began to garner critical attention for 'At Twelve' (1983–1985), a photographic series that included candid portraits of 12-year-old girls in various moments of everyday life. Some exuded confidence and self-awareness—such as the girl in a cowboy hat in Jennifer at the Rodeo (1983–1985) or the smiling girl on the sofa in Lithe and Birthday Cake (1983–1985)—while others made subtle references to the complexities of growing up. In Julie, John and Dollhouse (1983–1985), for example, the girl in question has clearly outgrown her dollhouse, yet the tall, suit-wearing figure—possibly her father—grabs her arm from the shadows as if unwilling to surrender her childhood.
However, it was with Mann's 'Immediate Family' series, begun in 1984 and published in 1992, that she gained both fame and notoriety. She was lauded for the lyrical quality of her photographs featuring her three children swimming, dancing or napping on their family property in Virginia, but criticised for showing them nude in some of the images. Mann's works also erupted in controversy for aestheticising moments of vulnerability and distress, such as her daughter Virginia sleeping nude next to urine stains in The Wet Bed (1987) or son Emmett bleeding in Bloody Nose (1991).
Contrary to the accusations of bad parenting and child exploitation, Mann collaborated closely with her children throughout the creation of 'Immediate Family' and only displayed the pictures they wanted to be shown. Two of her eldest children were also taken to a psychologist, who confirmed that they felt safe and well accounted for in their environment.
In the 1990s, Mann photographed the landscapes of Virginia and Georgia. Presented in the 1997 solo exhibition MOTHER LAND: Recent Landscapes of Georgia and Virginia at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, the images were made using a large-format camera and the wet plate collodion process, which involves dipping a collodion-coated glass plate in silver nitrate to make it light-sensitive. Unlike 19th-century photographers, who laboured to rid their negatives of any imperfections, Mann deliberately allowed dust and unevenly distributed collodion to settle on her plates, creating blurs, speckles, and blots that contributed to the hazy and nostalgic quality of her landscape photos.
Along with life, Mann has long been fascinated with the theme of death. Her photographs of Civil War battlefields from the early 2000s employed the collodion process and old lenses, producing dark and moody landscapes. In Battlefields, Antietam (Black Sun) (2001), for example, the sun is a brooding half-disk over the horizon where approximately 23,000 soldiers were wounded or killed. Around that same time, Mann also took pictures of bodies that had been donated for research purposes to the anthropological facility of the University of Tennessee. Many of the works in this 'Body Farm' series, depicting the decomposing bodies immersed in fallen leaves or surrounded by poetic light, are in colour, instead of her usual black-and-white photography.
Mann has also investigated the relationship between the landscape and racism in the Southern United States. As a young child, she was drawn to the story of Emmett Till, an African American teenager who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for being accused of whistling at a white girl; in 1998, she captured the sites associated with his death in high-contrast images. Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie), for example, depicts the bridge from which Till's body was supposedly disposed, while Deep South, Untitled (Emmett Till River Bank) shows the location where people believe he was later found.
Mann further addressed the historical and ongoing issues of racial inequality in the South by reflecting upon her own family history. Works such as The Two Virginias # 1 (1998) and #2 (1989) depict Virginia Carter—Mann's African American childhood caretaker whom she fondly called 'Gee-Gee'—and her daughter Virginia together, juxtaposing the two starkly different individuals—aged and young, black and white, the employee and the child of the employer—to hint at the history of slavery and discrimination. Mann's 'Men' series (2006–2015), which comprises images of the bodies of African American men, similarly stemmed from her desire to confront her past ignorance of the anonymous Black men who had worked for her family—people who had surrounded her but whom she never ventured to know personally.
Mann's work is in the public collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, among others. Selected solo exhibitions include Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, a major retrospective of 115 photographs presented by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (2018); The Flesh and The Spirit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (2010); Proud Flesh, Gagosian Gallery, New York (2009); and Sally Mann: The Family and the Land, Kulturhuset, Stockholm (2007), which toured Europe until 2010.
Mann was a 1987 Guggenheim Fellow and received the National Endowments for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship four times (1982, 1988, 1989 and 1992). She was named America's Best Photographer by Time Magazine in 2001, and Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (1992) and What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (2005)—two documentary films about her practice—were respectively nominated for an Academy Award and two Emmy Awards. Also an accomplished writer, Mann's memoir, titled Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (2015). was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2018