Sally Mann is an American photographer popularly known for her powerful and controversial images depicting sexuality, childhood, slavery, civil war, and death. Her father introduced her to photography and took photos of her as a nude girl. She took up photography at the Putney School in Vermont and spent about two years studying at Bennington College. Her work also involves documentation of the American landscape in the south. From the 1970s, Mann has been producing numerous photographic landscapes, portraits, and still images that have been displayed in various art galleries (Carmi, 2017). Her most iconic photographs depict her family, including her husband and three children.
She was born in Virginia in 1969 and earned a Bachelor in Arts degree and later a master’s degree in creative writing from Hollins University. After graduation, she secured a job as a photographer at the Washington and Lee University. After photographing the law school building’s construction, she came up with a solo exhibition in Washington in 1977. In the 1990s, she diversified her interests into landscape photography. Using her unique techniques, she created a collection, which she presented at the Edwyyn Houk Gallery in New York (Carmi, 2017). She also included the photos in two of her books, i.e., The Deep South (1999) and Mother Land (1997). She has a total of fifteen books that showcase her work over the years.
Her works are permanently displayed in various art galleries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Whitney Museum. Time Magazine named her America’s best photographer in 2001. The photos have also featured twice in The New York Times magazine in 2001 and 1992. Two documentary films, What Remains, and Blood Ties, have focused on her. For many people, she is among the best photographers working today.
Sally Mann’s Impact on American Society
For approximately forty years, Sally Mann has experimented with hauntingly beautiful photos, which have explored fundamental societal themes, including mortality, family, desire, and nature’s indifference. Her photography strikes a delicate balance between love for the native south and awareness of the fraught past that the region experienced (Keller, 2018). Her work elicits provocative discussions surrounding identity, history, spirituality, and race. For example, her photography depicts the south’s societal tensions, with the region standing as a graveyard, homeland, battleground, and refuge.
Mann has greatly impacted society’s perception of family and family ties through her photography. For example, between 1985 and 1994, she photographed three children, Jessie, Emmett, and Virginia, at their family home. Using the wide-view camera, Mann portrayed the family’s everyday life in detail. She created pictures that evoked the tranquility and freedom of the unhurried days. Her portrayals reveal beauty, sensuality, bravado, and tenderness within the family unit (Jenkins, 2018). They also show moments of anger, confusion, and the struggle between independence and attachment. Her book titled Immediate Family contains pictures that illustrate parenting challenges and growing up. Her work raises difficult questions about parental authority and the distinction between private and public image. However, she creates a relatable picture of everyday family life in American society.
Mann grew up in Virginia, a society surrounded by the American civil war memories. Approximately one-third of the war’s battles occurred in Virginia, her home state. The pastoral appearance of the historic sites that had witnessed the war unsettled Mann, who sought to conjure their violent history through a series of battlefield photos that she created between 2000 and 2003. The images detail an important part of America’s history, which led to the United States of America as the world knows it today.
In documenting the civil war battlegrounds, Mann used a nineteenth-century process that produced the landscape’s glass negatives, embracing the technical shortfalls for their dramatic effect. To achieve the desired textural quality in her prints, she coated the surfaces with varnish, which contained diatomaceous earth (Keller, 2018). The gritty and dark photos render the battle sites as decimated and haunted. For example, she documents the Battle of Antietam, which was among the bloodiest during the war. Thousands of soldiers from both sides perished at the site. In this regard, she tries to make American society aware of war’s consequences by highlighting the war’s death and devastation. Every American learns about the war in school and history books, but nothing enhances the events’ realism than what Mann does. Therefore, viewers will appreciate a peaceful society’s essence and create a stronger union.
Among the most pertinent works that Mann has carried is the history of slavery and discrimination in the United States. She embarked on numerous photographic series from the early 2000s to highlight the lasting effects of segregation and slavery on the Virginia landscape (Carmi, 2017). She also interprets how the dark history shaped her childhood and modern American society. To bring out this depiction, Mann created two groups of photos that illustrated the spiritual and physical pathways: the swamps and rivers that provided escape routes for slaves in the south and the churches that offered asylum, deliverance, and communion for African Americans.
She also made intimate portraits of black men and opted to reconsider her earlier pictures of Virginia Carter, a caretaker who spent forty years working for her family. She brought these photos together and titled them “Abide with Me, a Plea for Tolerance.” In 2008, she highlighted other stories of oppression that can be found within the Virginia landscape. She began photographing the Nottoway Rivers and Great Dismal Swamp. For many years, the swamps had been sanctuaries for fugitive slaves, while the rivers facilitated their escape (Keller, 2018). Her interest in the site was inspired by Nat Turner’s story, one of the leaders of the slave rebellion of 1831. The Great Dismal swamp provided him with a hiding place for close to two months before being arrested and executed. By capturing the memories of the site, it reminds Americans about one of the bloodiest racial conflicts and its relationship in today’s society.
In conclusion, Sally Mann’s works strike the fabric of American society. She touches subjects that few would dare to explore. From her controversial nude photographs to highlighting the dark past in the south, she strikes a balance between keeping the audience informed and interested in her art. Few artists match her steadiness for simplistic eyesight and communicate clearly and technical brilliance. Her dedication toward highlighting historical injustices is indistinguishable. Her work elicits provocative discussions surrounding identity, history, spirituality, and race. For example, her photography depicts the south’s societal tensions, with the region standing as a graveyard, homeland, battleground, and refuge. Most importantly, she acknowledges the importance of reflecting on the country’s history to forge a future free from past mistakes, including slavery and the civil war.
Carmi, A. (2017). Sally Mann’s American vision of the land. Journal of Art Historiography, (17), 1-26.
Jenkins, M. E. (2018). Sally Mann’s “A Thousand Crossings” at the Musée du Jeu de Paume. Transatlantica. Revue d’études américaines. American Studies Journal, (1).
Keller, L. (2018). “Terrible in its beauty, terrible in its indifference”: Postcolonial ecocriticism and Sally Mann’S southern landscapes. College of William and Mary – Arts & Sciences. https://doi.org/10.21220/S2-HPC3-4R92