Mann’s challenging images of childhood and, by extension, motherhood have become ubiquitous. This post has been long in coming because of the nagging question: How will I ever do justice to this artist’s work? Finally, the release of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, published by Little, Brown and Co., this May forced my hand and convinced me that I could procrastinate no further. The book is the kind of self-examination that would have made Socrates proud and an enviable genealogical legacy to her entire family.
Sally Mann (neé Munger) was born in 1951 in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Her father, a family physician from an established Texan family, was educated in the North where he met Sally’s mother. This kind of heritage would almost inevitably make Sally a fish out of water in social circles but impress upon her an appreciation for the land itself. She took a serious interest in photography when at The Putney School in Vermont which her two brothers had attended before her. Her father introduced her to the arts and she has fond memories of several books he shared with her. One was The Family of Man (1955) and on only her second roll of film, she shot her first nudes in 1969, inspired by Wynn Bullock’s Child in Forest. For the most part, Sally bares all in her book, but out of respect for one of her subjects who now has a prominent position in a major corporation, she did not reproduce it.
Two films were produced about Sally, both directed by Steven Cantor. The first, Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (1994), was shot and produced during the furor over the exhibitions of her child nudes and the second, What Remains (2005), gives a much more comprehensive picture of her inspirations and body of work. When I personally learned of the artist’s work, I was naturally impressed by the raw and pristine imagery, but after seeing these films, I admit to falling in love with the humanity of this imaginative and tortured soul. We begin to get an insight into Sally’s attitude about nudity by the fact that in her first two years of life, she obstinately refused to wear clothes. In fact, the assumption that nudity was an integral part of everyday childhood caused her to overstate in interviews the number of photos that existed of her in a state of undress. After a careful review, she was compelled to amend the record. Some of the photographs of young Sally reveal some of the striking characteristics to be seen later in her own children.
After high school, she opted to attend Bennington College, deciding that she was not cut out for one of the more urban schools. She met Larry Mann during a Christmas visit home in 1969 and they were married six months later. During their early years together, they traveled throughout Europe on a thin shoestring budget, much to the consternation of Larry’s socially ambitious parents. And even after visiting some of the most beautiful places in Europe, the couple felt nothing held a candle to Rockbridge County so they moved there for good in 1973. Sally shares a rich tapestry of family history including how her father first bought the land and how she later bought out her brothers’ shares so that it could become the Mann estate.
It seems remarkable in retrospect, but at first, Sally did not consider her children suitable subjects for art photography. She did the usual photos that parents are expected to make, but they were snapshots and not done with an artist’s eye. Sally has always respected the presence of serendipity in the creative process and in 1985, one of her biggest took place. Emmett, Sally’s eldest child, was born in 1980 and then Jessie came in 1981. With the birth of Virginia, she fancied that she should capture the event on film. Unfortunately, the exposure time needed to compensate for the poor lighting meant that Virginia’s entry into the world was a blur—”a dud”. A few months later, Sally took what she considered her first good family picture, Damaged Child, of Jessie’s swollen face from insect bites. She got the idea from the title of a Dorothea Lange photo Damaged Child, Shacktown,Elm Grove, Oklahoma (1936). As she continued her efforts in this vein, she began to realize that she was blessed with children of potent character. Even so, none of this would have materialized without an attitude shift. It is perhaps within the most mundane material that we find the sublime.
Sally’s family photographs are a mixture of spontaneity and deliberate composition. For example, here we can see her directing Virginia to get one of her shots.
On the other hand, when she sees something she just has to capture she asks the child to hold still until she can get her camera set up. These are precarious times because as time passes, some of the spontaneity is lost and the strain of holding the pose adds to the intensity of the posture and facial expression. In one of Sally’s favorite images, she had the camera nearby and was able to shoot The Perfect Tomato. The strange title was the product of haste; the tomatoes were the only thing in focus in the shot. The lens flare was a happy accident that gave the subject an angelic quality. In Blood Ties, Jessie described her memory of how it happened.
In 2000, Melissa Harris interviewed Jessie Mann who was preparing for her freshman year in college. Among other things, she spoke about the nature of her relationship with her mother.
When we were taking pictures, it created a relationship with Mom that’s very different from other people’s relationships—much more powerful…Because there already is a very powerful bond, then add to that the bond between artist and subject…On top of being our mother, she became a whole lot more. So that made our relationship stronger, but of course more complicated. -Jessie Mann, 2000 (Aperture No. 162, Winter 2001)
The combination of an artist’s eye and a desire to get the image just right created a kind of ambivalence within the family. On the one hand, it is flattering to get so much attention, but getting the image right sometimes meant a seemingly interminable effort. In the case of the image The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, when she first saw Emmett in the water, she did the usual and asked him to hold still. Shot after shot did not come out to Sally’s satisfaction and over the next 7 or 8 days, Emmett patiently followed his mother’s instructions until everything was right: the light, the reflection in the water, the eye level, Emmett’s position in the water, Emmett’s position in the frame and the right pose and facial expression. The title, which later came to have a double meaning, was meant to express the exasperation after such an ordeal. Several versions were reprinted in Hold Still to illustrate this process.
For the most part, Larry and the kids were good sports and for that reason, Sally has to give equal credit to her subjects for the successful collaboration. But sometimes, as Emmett remarked, whenever one of them noticed that look in their mother’s eyes—when she suddenly “saw” a picture—if one was not in the mood for another photo session, one had better make himself scarce. Or if there was no way out of it, the kids could torment their mother in more subtle ways. The top shot of all three kids appeared on the cover of Immediate Family, but the bottom illustrates one of the variations where the girls have softer facial expressions. Emmett confessed later that during this shoot, he was moving his body ever so slightly forward and back to keep his mother from getting the perfect focus.
Despite these battles of will, the family members recognize that Sally brings out something special in the seemingly ordinary.
…She sees the world in images. -Larry Mann (What Remains, 2005)
It’s almost like she sees something happening and she just thinks to herself, “I know that this is special—what I’m seeing right here.” -Emmett Mann (What Remains, 2005)
When you’re around an artist all the time, you’re always reminded of what’s beautiful and what’s special, and you can’t forget it. -Jessie Mann (Aperture, No. 162, Winter 2001)
I think what makes Mom different is that she can look at the same object that I would consider pretty commonplace and ordinary, but she’ll make a print of it and suddenly I’ll see the beauty of it. -Virginia Mann (What Remains, 2005)
When Immediate Family was published in 1992, Sally assumed it would be greeted with moderate acclaim just like her previous work, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988).
The family was not prepared for the explosive sales and the notoriety that came. Listening to the detractors, one might come away with the impression that Sally published the work without regard to the feelings and reputations of her family, but this was far from the truth. The children were consulted about their favorites and which images they objected to. Never was nudity at issue and Larry mediated to make sure the children were not just trying to please their mother. For example, Emmett vetoed an image (Emmett Asleep, 1985) because, at the time, he was pretending to be Bugs Bunny and was wearing white stockings on his arms. Given his age, he was concerned about looking like a dork. Another candid image was of Virginia entitled Pissing in the Wind. Now that they are grown up, they can appreciate these images for what they are, candid moments of family life and these two examples were reprinted in Hold Still. Sometimes Sally censored herself as in The Bent Ear. With Jessie’s thin figure and the strain of waiting for the camera to be set up, Sally thought the picture made her look like a torture victim and was simply too painful to look at.
When the letters came in, Sally was surprised at the range of comments. In her characteristic fastidiousness, she sorted them into For, Against and What the Fuck? Although a sense of humor was undoubtedly helpful, the one ray of light was that more than half the letters were positive. It is tempting for visually literate people to write off any negative comments as narrow-minded and not worthy of acknowledgment. Whatever the interpretation, what was happening was a kind of culture clash. Nudity seems to be a natural mode of expression for the liberal-minded proponents of counterculture; and just as there are clothing-optional parks and beaches, there are bound to be many households that observe this custom as well.
The real breakthrough in Hold Still is that Sally makes the context of the land paramount in the interpretation of the pictures. Within this context, these images make perfect sense and without it, they seem bizarre at first glance. The land that the Manns owned was a secluded plot surrounded, unusually, on three sides by the Maury River. Even in the most difficult of times, the family felt safe there away from the madness and ridicule of society—without radios, without television and without computers.
How natural was it in that situation, to allow our children to run naked? Or, put another way, how bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for their river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark, when all three would would dive like sleek otters for glow sticks thrown in the pool under the still-warm cliffs? -Sally Mann (Hold Still, 2015)
For the most part, Sally would avoid looking at the almost endless barrage of reviews. She was an artist, after all, and would not want her art to be tainted by the influx of public opinion. But occasionally, something would come across her radar and one review in particular was devastating in its thoughtlessness and self-righteousness. It was an editorial by Raymond Sokolov, a food critic of all things, published in the Wall Street Journal in February 1991. Ostensibly about government funding of the arts, it took the opportunity to ridicule and mutilate an image published on the cover of the Fall 1990 issue (No. 121) of Aperture. Virginia happened to see it and was very upset about being “crossed out”. For a time, she became extremely self-conscious about her body and even wanted to wear shorts and a shirt in the bathtub the following night. In an attempt at a kind of psychotherapy, a photo shoot was conducted to make a light-hearted mockery of the censorship.
To Sally, her family photographs were partly therapeutic. She would take every mishap and exaggerate it into a worst-case scenario to help alleviate her own anxieties about motherhood and as a kind of sympathetic magic to prevent the worst from actually happening. Whether this actually worked is a matter of perspective. Both Jessie and Emmett are only alive today because of stokes of good fortune, Jessie having been born premature and in guarded condition for an extended period and Emmett surviving a car impact that ought to have killed him.
As statistics will bear out, whenever there is a large group of people, a tiny percent are bound to be weirdos. Two particular individuals stand out in Sally’s memory and their tales are told in the book. A few years into their marriage, Larry’s mother, who lived in Connecticut, murdered her husband and then killed herself. Because the couple was respected in the community, the police did not really conduct a full investigation and quickly closed the case. Sally fancied she’d investigate further on her own and called the police to request a copy of the case file. Strangely, the police had the file readily at hand. The reason was that they were receiving strange letters from someone in Richmond with fanciful suggestions of foul play. It turned out to be the mother of a disgruntled artist, envious of Sally’s fame. The other was a man who became love-sick for the Mann children. He would track down family members, neighbors and institutions for any scrap of information about them such as birth certificates, school events and grades. The FBI became involved but informed the family that since this man did not make any threats and had not trespassed onto the property, nothing could be done. The family decided not to go public with this information until now based on the notion that they should not dignify the efforts of this man. Ironically, in their diligence to keep a wary eye out, this man came up in family conversations more often than blood kin. In a sense, he got his most fervent wish as his specter was a constant presence in the house.
Perhaps the most hurtful type of negative criticism was that Sally was a bad mother. This put her in an intractable position as no mother is perfect, but with the public scrutiny, every little thing would be interpreted as some shortcoming. As mentioned before, mother and children are all strong-willed people and there were the usual conflicts as is bound to happen in any family. Sally was apparently not physically affectionate with her children and so there are signs that they sought other forms of comfort. Jessie, for example, developed a drinking problem which she has been managing. After reflection, the children now recognize that their mother expressed her love through her art and gifted them with a sense of their beauty. For this reason, each of the children are consistently very protective of their mother and defend her as necessary. And Sally has her regrets as well, like the time Jessie refused to eat her flounder and was made to sit there all night until she finished it.
Fame is a two-edged sword, but it would be unfair to blame its negative effect on an artist who could never have anticipated it. She reasonably assumed that quality work would eventually get recognized by cultured people—but slowly. Sally’s notoriety sometimes interfered with schoolyard relationships because other kids would tease them or other parents objected to their mother’s work. With this kind of fame, what room is there for the children to find their own place in the world? Once Emmett and Jessie were in college, they started talking to each other about their childhood in a kind of exclusive support group; who else would understand their experiences? And should they parlay their mother’s fame to their own benefit? Another effect of all this attention is that one can get used to it. In the film What Remains, Jessie talks about being a kind of modeling junkie. Whenever someone wanted to do a photo shoot of her, she just couldn’t say no. On the other hand, Virginia, being much younger, had a slightly different perspective, hoping simply to fit in and get on with her life.
All the while, in the background of all this drama, was the land. One can see Sally’s interest in the family photographs wane as the children became smaller and smaller in the background of these timeless landscapes.
A theme that permeates Sally’s retrospective is death. She learned that her father collected art that featured portrayals of death and analyzing Southern culture, Sally feels there is always an undercurrent of death, as though it were a familiar companion. This is an understandable reflection of all the blood shed on battlefields and the brutal use of Africans and their descendants in the building of the South.
There were two events in Sally’s life that precipitated two of her projects. The first was the death of one of her beloved greyhounds, Eva. She could not bear to bury her and so, over time, she studied her pet’s decomposing remains. Even the smallest fragment of bone seemed to evoke memories of Eva. She became fascinated about what happens to bodies when they decay and was given permission to photograph bodies at a facility where they study decaying bodies in the open. The results of her work appeared in the book, What Remains (2003). The other event was the killing of an escaped convict on the family compound. When the authorities finally cleared out, she stared at that place contemplating the dichotomy of death and renewal. While the land indiscriminately recycles, the memories of death linger in the writings and minds of human beings. This prompted a visit to the great battlefields of the South to capture this sentiment on film, culminating in the book Deep South (2005). And as if there were not already enough presence of decay in Sally’s life, Larry was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy in which the muscles waste away. Fortunately, Larry had a well-developed physique to start with so it would take longer for the condition to be debilitating. For most men, this kind of indignity would cause him to hide his disease, but instead Larry has generously allowed Sally to photograph him and his condition as time passes in a project calls ‘Proud Flesh’.
Another expression of Sally’s fascination with the past is that she processes her own negatives and has practiced a number of antiquarian techniques. She likes the feel of handling the materials, much as Julia Margaret Cameron did. Also like Cameron, she welcomes the serendipitous flaws that are rejected in a professional process: dust getting on the plate or laminate peeling on the negative in just the right place. Using older techniques also means longer exposure times and in her series, ‘Faces’, she asked her grown up children to hold still for various 3-minute exposures. The flaw in this image gives the impression of soapy tears.
A manifestation of the superficiality of society is that if a gallery can’t make money on art, they aren’t interested. Sally was disheartened that no New York gallery would exhibit ‘Faces’ and she later found an excellent venue in Washington DC which made it possible for friends and neighbors to view it. This project also became a kind of personal discipline. Sally admits to being a nervous and frenetic person by nature and so has challenged herself to produce self-portraits that require her to hold still for 6 minutes while she exposes the plate. This development is also a result of the fact that her children are no longer on hand to model
Having both Southern and Yankee blood, Sally was exposed to the best and worst of both cultures. She embraced the philosophy behind the Civil Rights movement, but she herself was raised by a black woman she knew as Gee-Gee. The day-to-day management of the household was done by this woman and she made sure Sally was fed, dressed and ready for school. Sally’s contemplation of the role of black people in the South made her wonder about this alien lifestyle and upbringing—so utterly different from her own. In an effort to explore this “otherness”, she recently embarked on a project to photograph the bodies of black men. To bring out the truth in her subjects, she keeps things as anonymous as possible. She does not ask them about their lives and she does not share any particulars about herself except what she requires of them. After about an hour, they part company.
From time to time, Sally—sometimes with the kids—would review the family photographs. She shares an interesting theory about the interplay of memory and photography. Not really remembering her own childhood, she has relied on photographs and other artifacts to reveal her own past. It is as though the ability to record things photographically diminishes our capacity to remember. Historians have noted something similar after the invention of mechanical printing and the development of popular literacy centuries ago. In her Aperture interview, Jessie expressed a sense of disembodiment about her old pictures, a feeling that they are not really of her. This makes some sense since we are not the same people we were as children and here the images are not just family snapshots, but partly constructions from their mother’s imagination. An anecdote about Jessie takes place when she was dressing for an exhibition of the the family pictures. She realized that a sleeveless top she was considering would expose her chest if she raised her arms and so she rejected the garment. A friend remarked how odd it was that she should be concerned since there would be numerous photos showing her chest at the show. Then Jessie responded, “Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.” Children can indeed distinguish between the production of an image and the real thing.
Many today might feel that Sally Mann and her family have been vindicated. They rode the rough waters of celebrity and controversy, the adult children continue to make their way in life and Sally is still pursuing her art. But one unrecognized effect of the thoughtless rhetoric has been that many good family photos have still not reached the public. This subject was discussed in What Remains, but whenever the family mulled over the possibility of another book or exhibition, there was the inevitability of answering the same tiresome questions and they became discouraged. Perhaps someday we will see them when our society respects real artists and galleries regard them as more than just an opportunity to make money.
A favorite image of mine is Steven Cantor’s parting shot in Blood Ties. In it, Virginia is saying that she wishes her mother would take a picture of her right now.
Thank you Virginia, Jessie, Emmett, Larry and Sally for your courage, generosity and irrepressible human spirit. -Ron
Sally Mann photography (official site): some of the unseen family photographs may be coming to light here.
Pigtails posted a this delightfully irreverent image a while back.
An excellent collection of reproductions of Sally Mann’s work were published in a Christie’s catalog for an auction held on October 7, 2009 and copies have been sold on the secondary market.
I have done my best to give a good overview of this artist, with an emphasis on the children, but Mann’s work is such a linchpin to many issues regarding art, child rearing, nudity, psychology, social justice, commerce and privacy that these will have to be discussed in a supplement post later.
 A colleague has informed me of a scholarly article about the Mann photographs entitled “Public/Private Tensions in the Photography of Sally Mann” by Sarah Parsons. It is worth a look for anyone interested in the work of this artist and how it has affected the family dynamic. -Ron