In Sally Mann's farmhouse, in Lexington, Virginia, a photograph of her children dominates a room, much as they have dominated their mother's creative life for the past 20 years. The picture is notable for both the kids' innocent beauty and their knowing, defiant gazes, and it epitomizes Mann's work, which has been criticized for its frankness but mostly celebrated for its honesty. In 2001, Time magazine called her "America's best photographer."
Mann is a poet of the personal, from her haunting evocations of the Virginia countryside, to her intimate portraits of her children, to her latest project, a graphic elegy to her husband, who has muscular dystrophy. She grew up in rural Virginia as a "feral" child, she recalls, often running around outdoors without clothes. Her father, a physician, a civil rights supporter and, she lovingly says, an "oddball," gave her a camera when she was 17 and told her the only subjects worthy of art were love, death and whimsy. Sally Mann studied literature in college, and later attended photography workshops by Ansel Adams and George Tice, whose darkroom wizardry she embraced.
Mann's third book, Immediate Family, published in 1992 to coincide with a solo exhibition at a New York City gallery, won her wide notoriety. It features dozens of black-and-white photographs of her three children, typically playing (or playacting) in pastoral settings. Many are dreamy, expressing some of the fleeting charms particular to childhood, but others are almost surreal (her son's bloody nose, a daughter in a tutu next to a dead deer). "I'm a little like Flaubert, who when he looked at a young girl saw the skeleton underneath," says Mann, 54. "It's not morbid, it's just this awareness of the antithetical aspect of every situation."
The pictures of her half-clothed or naked children sparked outrage in some quarters. "Selling photographs of children naked for profit is immoral," the televangelist Pat Robertson told the filmmaker Steven Cantor, whose documentary about Mann is due to air on HBO this year. But others say such criticism is unwarranted, pointing out that Mann's photographs are not erotic and clearly reflect a mother's loving regard. In fact, prior to publishing and exhibiting the pictures, Mann says that she showed the images to an FBI agent and also introduced her kids to him, seeking assurance that the agency wouldn't pursue her on pornography charges; it did not. "My parents were eccentric, and when I had my own children, I didn't see any point in making them wear bathing suits when we swam in the river," Mann says. "There was no one within five miles of us."
The photographs made a big splash, covered by news media from Art Forum to People. Jessie Mann, now 23, says the publicity coincided with her realization that their childhood wasn't "like other people's." The experience of collaborating with her mother taught her about the power of art, she says. And she admires the way the photographs provoke questions about the difference (or lack of it) between reality and fantasy, even as they touch on something deeper: "There is magic in things, life is magical and wonderful." Today, Jessie, who lives in Lexington, is experimenting with mixed-media artwork, combining photography, painting and writing. The other Mann children are Emmett, 24, a landscaper, and Virginia, 20, a college student. Looking back on her initial collaboration with the children, Sally Mann says, "There was a real leap of faith on their part. They were extremely generous and trusting, but I wouldn't recommend anyone else trying to do it."
Mann's most recent exhibition of photographs, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. last year, drew on her abiding interest in family, loss, decay and memory, but with a twist. Lately she has relied on a photographic technique introduced in 1851 and favored by Civil War documentarian Mathew Brady. It requires a large, cumbersome camera, a glass plate coated with a sticky silver nitrate solution and five-minute exposures. "To achieve something great," she says, "you have to work really hard at it." Mann, who says she has been influenced by 19th-century photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron and Eugène Atget, believes that the wet collodion process adds to the timeless look of her photographs. Also, its fragility creates quirks and imperfections, which help make every image unique. Among the things she has photographed with the big plates are the faces of her children (in extreme close-up), Civil War battlefields, corpses at a forensic study site and the bones of a beloved greyhound, Eva. The photographs appear in her latest book, What Remains, published last year by Bullfinch Press. Some might think the subjects gloomy. Not Mann. "Immodestly, I thought they were rather beautiful," the photographer says.
Mann's newest work is a series of nudes of her husband of 35 years, Larry Mann, 56, a self-taught lawyer, as he copes with his disease. It's not unheard of for a photographer to focus on a spouse, but, one critic observed in the New York Times, "no woman has ever turned a camera so candidly on a man."
"My mother has no blinders on," Jessie Mann says. "She will always look intensely upon whatever is closest to her."