Extra Credit Photography Essay: Sally Mann

I struggle with enormous discrepancies: between the reality of motherhood and the image of it, between my love for my home and the need to travel, between the varied and seductive paths of the heart. The lessons of impermanence, the occasional despair and the muse, so tenuously moored, all visit their needs upon me and I dig deeply for the spiritual utilities that restore me: my love for the place, for the one man left, for my children and friends and the great green pulse of spring.”

–       Sally Mann

Sally Mann was born in Lexington, Virginia on May 1st, 1951 to Robert S. Munger and Elizabeth Evans Munger. As the third of three children and only daughter, Mann was immersed in the arts at a young age as her father encouraged her to take photographs using his 5×7 camera. In 1969 she graduated from the Putney School (where she began using the dark room) and later attended both Bennington College and Friends World College. In 1974 she earned a B.A., summa cum laude, from Hollins College and an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1975. In 1984 Mann’s first book, Second Sight, was published.

Second Sight contains Mann’s early landscapes and portraits of women. Mann’s second effort, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, takes her female portraiture a bit further by creating images that “captured the confusing emotions and developing identities of adolescent girls [and the] expressive printing style lent a dramatic and brooding mood to all of her images”.  It was Mann’s third book, however, that distinguished her as a talented, controversial, and stylistically unique photographic artist.

Immediate Family, Sally Mann’s most well known collection of work, was published in 1992, and garnered much positive and negative criticism. The New York Times said of Immediate Family: “Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world.” With Mann’s success, however, also came disapproval. The 65 photographs contained in Immediate Family are of her three children at their summer cabin alongside a river where they are seen playing and swimming in the nude. These nude photographs outraged many viewers, especially Christian opposers. Mann defended her photographs as “natural through the eyes of a mother, since she has seen her children in every state: happy, sad, playful, sick, bloodied, angry and even naked.”

Immediate Family was followed in 1994 by Still Time, a collection of more photos of her children, abstract photos, and colored landscapes. This book marked the transition of her earlier work into her current wet glass collodion process.

Mann’s fifth, sixth, and seventh books (What Remains, Deep South, and Proud Flesh) collect photographs taken on wet plate collodion 8×10 glass negatives. What Remains, a photo-essay split into five parts, explores the idea of death and the stages of deterioration. Deep South consists of gloomy southern landscapes while Proud Flesh is a six-year study of her husband’s muscular dystrophy.

In 2010 Sally Mann released a retrospective collection entitled The Flesh and the Spirit. The book contains both recent and unpublished work and was printed in conjunction with a retrospective gallery show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Mann uses a 100-year-old 8 x 10 bellows view camera. She works primarily in black and white but, as discussed earlier, also does some work in color. Mann’s work is characterized as hazy or ghostly, and incorporates scratches and print imperfections caused by her collodion process.

She has been the subject of frequent feminist studies for her portraiture of the feminine form and for incorporating commentaries on female struggles in her work, especially in At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women. She is also praised in the feminist community for breaking new ground for female fine artists in the field of photography.

I discovered Sally Mann after coming across the documentary What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann in ninth grade. The film focuses on the creative processes that took place during the construction of Mann’s fifth book. The documentary also follows one of Mann’s most controversial moves: when she photographs decaying carcasses at a forensic body farm.

After watching the film, I was so enthralled not only by Mann’s work itself but by her character. The thought, emotion, and depth that go into her work are immense and well though out. In addition to her meaningful visual artwork, Mann is also a talented creative writer and often includes poetic prose throughout her books. This also really attracted me because I’ve always seen creative writing as my first art and it’s something I like to fuse with my visual artwork.

Overall, Sally Mann has proved herself not only as a photographer, but also as a talented and provocative artist. She creates inventive work, uses inventive processes, and backs it all up with well- informed reasoning. Her unapologetic nature and abstract way of thinking are inspirations to me.


Second Sight (1983)

At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988)

Immediate Family (1992)

Still Time (1995)

What Remains (2003)

Deep South (2005)

Proud Flesh (2009)

The Flesh & the Spirit (2010)

Works Cited

“Photography Quotations by Sally Mann – American Photographer.” Great Photography Quotes – Best Photographers Quotations. Web. 04 Dec. 2010. <http://www.photoquotes.com/showquotes.aspx?id=431&name=Mann,Sally&gt;.

“Photo-eye Bookstore | Sally Mann: Second Sight | Photobook.” Photo-eye | Photography Magazine, Photo Bookstore, Photography Gallery, Rare Photobook Auctions, USA Photo Guide, VisualServer Websites for Photographers. Web. 04 Dec. 2010. <http://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=GO016&i=&i2=0879234717&CFID=13353654&CFTOKEN=45918328&gt;.

“Sally Mann.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 04 Dec. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally_Mann&gt;.

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