“If I could be said to have any kind of aesthetic, it’s sort of a magpie aesthetic – I just go and I pick up whatever is around. If you think about it, the children were there, so I took pictures of my children. It’s not that I’m interested in children that much or photographing them- it’s just that they were there…” – Sally Mann
I really debated with myself on who to choose for this edition of Spotlight; there are so many amazing photographers to choose from in the nearly 200 year history of photography. However, as I went over one iconic name after another, I found that I kept coming back to Sally Mann. I realize that I have already chosen other artists that work in black & white, but the raw, powerful nature of Sally’s work, and the fact that she uses a 100-year old 8 x 10 bellows view camera with wet plate collodion glass negatives, was a story that begged to told. Her work is both provocative and innocent at the same time. She is best known for her large black and white photographs, first of her young children, then of landscapes when her children started getting older, then of an amazing body of self-portraits. Though she has made a career of creating thought provoking, provocative photographs, it was the photos of her children, that began the controversy that would follow her throughout her career.
Mann was unaware of the controversy these photographs would cause until the time of her first gallery showing. She says that these photographs are “of my children living their lives here too. Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictitions and some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things that every mother has seen.”
This turned into more than a simple controversy. She was accused of child pornography both in America and abroad. Critics, however, loved her work. They said her vision was accurate and a change from the notions we were used to of childhood being a time of “unalloyed sweetness and innocence.” Mann thought of her photos 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.”
Mann was named “America’s Best Photographer” in 2001 by Time magazine. They had this to say about her work:
“Mann recorded a combination of spontaneous and carefully arranged moments of childhood repose and revealingly — sometimes unnervingly — imaginative play. What the outraged critics of her child nudes failed to grant was the patent devotion involved throughout the project and the delighted complicity of her son and daughters in so many of the solemn or playful events. No other collection of family photographs is remotely like it, in both its naked candor and the fervor of its maternal curiosity and care.”
I have to admit, I have a hard time with some of her photos, but I have to ask myself is it because of my own social mores? Do I need to look at them with different eyes? As both a mother and photographer I have to look at them with different eyes. I feel a profound connection to her work and the more I see of it the more I realize how honest it is. There is no pretense about it (though some of the scenes are obviously being staged). The emotions she captures on her kids’ faces are beautiful and yet sometimes haunting. I think in today’s society, we tend to look at photographs like this with tainted eyes. We don’t see that childhood is more than just playing games and fun…it is exploration, figuring out who we are as people and who we will eventually be as adults. Mann captures that dichotomy of childhood perfectly.
Her more recent work with landscapes is just as powerful. She did a series in 2003 which turned into a book called “What Remains”. It is a five part series that started with taking photos of her dog, Eva, who had died. This led her to going to the Forensic Anthropology Facility where she was given permission to take photos of the dead and decomposing bodies they use for studying. She also took photos of a place on her property where an armed convict was killed, and did a study of the grounds of Antietam. The last section of the book is a series of close-up shots of the faces of her children. The book starts with death and decay but ends with what remains… what is here and now… life and love.
“I certainly could go out and buy a good, tack-sharp lens that would take the perfect picture that’s in focus from end to end. But instead, I spend an awful lot of time at that antique mall looking around for these lenses with just the right amount of decrepitude. The glue has to be peeling off of the lens elements, it’s great if its mildewed and out of whack…” - Sally Mann
Sally is an artist in the true sense of the word. Her work allows us to participate intimately in her life as voyeurs, of sorts, watching and struggling with the nature of beauty, family, love and loss.