Her initial caution is understandable. Mann has made quite a stir with her camera. Her photographs have been branded as child pornography. Former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore called them “lewd” and “outrageous,” and criticized the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for inviting her to lecture in 2000 — though, it was later revealed, he had not actually seen the work in question. Incidentally, according to modern and contemporary art curator John Ravenal, who says Mann is easily one of the best and best-known photographers working today, her lecture was standing room only.
No matter how valid the accusations, Mann has been the center of controversy since her intimate family photographs were published by Aperture in 1992. The black-and-white series featured the rustic family cabin as a backdrop and consisted of many naked or partially naked photos of her children looking knowingly at the camera. They suggested a side of childhood that was perhaps not so innocent, and many critics saw subtexts that Mann says just aren’t there.
While Mann has been forced into defense mode for most of her career, she has also received affirmation from highly regarded institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim foundation and the Museum of Modern Art, which have either bought her work or given her grants. But no matter how many museums own her photographs (20 to date, including the Virginia Museum, which owns four), or how many awards and accolades she receives (Time magazine named her America’s best photographer in 2001), Mann’s work will always be shrouded in controversy. She says the overanalysis comes mostly from “leather-elbowed academics” who can’t understand her motivation or thinking because they don’t understand where she’s from.
And place is Mann’s muse.
Mann has spent most of her life in Rockbridge County, in the Blue Ridge foothills. The farm “has been my nourishment and comfort for most of my life,” she says. She was born and grew up in Lexington, Va., graduated from nearby Hollins College, returned to work as staff photographer at Washington and Lee University. Then she married Larry Mann and they raised their three children there.
The way she lives is closely tied to the rolling landscape. The family’s home is heated mostly by wood-burning stoves. She grows many of their vegetables and herbs. They raise and ride Arabian horses all over the 425-acre homestead. The house is open; large windows look out onto property that’s been in her family for years.
Place is so important to Mann that she’s not ready to talk about it when we meet. She says she’s been thinking about it a lot and promises to e-mail some “smart words” after she’s had more time to think. Mann’s full of smart words — a dictionary should be handed to you as you enter the house. A large one sits on a pedestal in her kitchen. Novels and New Yorker magazines rest on top of an old trunk and in piles beside the mustard velvet couch and comfy mismatched armchairs. She has no television, but says that’s the only bit of modernity she eschews.
“It’s the promulgation of consumerism that drives me nuts about television,” she says. “I use a computer like a fiend. It’s not like I’m a Luddite. The images [television] promotes to young girls makes me crazy. Just to harken back to the pictures of mine where my children look preternaturally mature, it can be seen as a commentary on what society does to young children. It makes them old before their time.”
Mann’s children had a childhood similar to her own. Mann, herself, had bohemian parents who let her run and ride horses, naked over the land, and she let her kids do the same. She says they spent “languid summers by the slow, lazy river, reading, swimming, exploring” on the same 425-acre farm.
“Almost all of my family work was on and, more importantly, because of the farm,” Mann writes in the promised e-mail. “By that I mean the farm allowed the free and private life that the children were able to enjoy. It’s a life not many American children get to enjoy anymore — no phone, no running water, no electricity and the most beautiful setting you can imagine: red-streaked, vine-hung cliffs opposite the cabin, the river deep and slow in the swimming hole at their base, the old woods behind us extending miles.”
She concludes, “Once you see the cabin, the images I made there make perfect sense.”
Maybe that’s why Mann freely opens her home. Prior to our arrival, a film crew was there working on a documentary about her. Director Steve Cantor was nominated for an Academy Award for a short documentary he made about Mann in 1993 and has already sold this one to HBO and the BBC. It’s scheduled to air in the spring of 2005.
After years of shooting the vitality of her growing children, Mann began to face a topic her father was interested in — mortality. While landscapes have always been very prominent in her pictures, in the last 10 years she began to use them to tell the story of death and decay.
The work is stirring, even disturbing. The pictures are moody and dreamy, due largely to the old cameras, lenses and processes she uses. She shot ghostly landscapes in Virginia (many around the farm) and Georgia that she called “Mother Land.” Then, in a darker series called “Deep South,” she took pictures of the scarred landscapes of Mississippi and Louisiana. In these, the land seems to tell the story of hardship that envelops the area.
Mann’s father, a doctor and an atheist, was fascinated by the iconography of death and how artists from different cultures portrayed death. So when Eva, one of Mann’s beloved greyhounds, died, she had the dog skinned, reassembled her bones and took photos of them. This study led her to travel to the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility — a “body farm” where cadavers are left to decompose naturally for research — and take pictures of the anonymous decaying bodies.
The resulting series, “What Remains,” is a jarring but respectful portrait of decay. Mann says she edited the photos carefully so they wouldn’t be shocking.
“That was meant to be a didactic, narrative, informative, thought-provoking book, and if I had used some of my really shocking pictures I think it would have changed the nature of the pursuit.” Her purpose was larger than just making people more comfortable with death, she says. It was “to make people think about death, therefore, thereby, live life more fully.”
All that thinking of how we decompose into the land led Mann to think of how the land is affected by death. “As I walk the fields of this farm, beneath my feet shift the bones of incalculable bodies,” she writes in the introduction to her “What Remains” book. Mann, who lives in an area heavy with Civil War lore, traveled to the Antietam National Battlefield, the site of the bloodiest battle on American soil. She took a series of eerie shots in which the land is noticeably scarred from its many casualties.
The Village Voice called the series of dark pictures a “magnificent mess.” They’re imperfect, streaked, dotted with white marks resembling snow, water marks, all giving the works an aged and defeated look. Some photographs from this “Last Measure” series will be on display here in Richmond in May at the Reynolds Gallery.
“In the Civil War pieces she has been able to capture this kind of depth of feeling and emotion on these battlefields in a way that has not been done before,” says Reynolds Gallery director Bev Reynolds. “And then she’s crossing a line between photography and painting with the treatment [of crushed shells and varnish] she applies to the surface of the photographs to seal them. So there is not glass, you approach them directly and you’re absorbed into this dark, mysterious, very compelling world.”
ann’s work may be dark but she is not. She tries to avoid a formal Q & A, but when she lounges on the couch to talk, she’s introspective. A sense of trust is quickly earned, and she’s welcoming and open. She jokes about using bagged spinach for a lunch salad. (The rest of the lunch she’s made from scratch — bread and two kinds of soup.)
There’s a simple aesthetic to the home, and one with a sense of humor. Colorful finches chirp from their wooden cages. A greenhouse off the kitchen is filled with blooming orchids. White walls with waist-high shelves hold art, mostly Mann’s large black-and-white photographs. An ornate religious painting looks out of place in the simple home. Next to it a fancy gold frame doesn’t hold a work of art; instead it’s filled with ticks Mann picked off the dogs, each insect held in place with pins.
Along with her serious work — a photo of the skin of her dead dog, or Larry lying face down, floating in water — are a fake Jasper Johns painting she picked up at the local antiques mall, the phallic tree stump her father used as a crŠche at Christmas time and petrified cat, rat and other various bones and remains.
Mann’s studio is about 25 yards down a hill from the house. She adds wood to the stove and apologizes for the mess. The studio is filled with chemicals, glass-plate negatives and large format bellows cameras. In her photos, the process is as much a part of the work as the subject. She prefers old, imperfect lenses and has been known to use her hand as a shutter.
For the “Deep South” and “Last Measure” series she used a century-old process called wet plate. It involves pouring chemicals on a glass plate (including ether, which she points out was the drug of choice for many artists). She inserts the plate into the camera, takes the picture, then dips the plate into a series of baths to expose the negative, all within six minutes. Ironically this antiquated process reveals the image quickly, like digital cameras today, and that’s one reason Mann likes it.
Because of these old techniques, Mann’s work is often dark or out of focus or scratched or stained. And the images are often ambiguous. In a 2001 PBS special about artists in the 21st century, Mann said, “It’s got to have some kind of peculiarity in it or it’s not interesting to me.” The Virginia Museum’s Ravenal says the imperfections are exactly what makes her work great.
“She courts accident, and that’s somewhat unusual for a photographer,” Ravenal says. “Secondly, she’s a type of photographer who’s pushing the envelope of the medium. We’re accustomed to thinking of photographs as accurate reflections of reality, and she’s doing something different. You could almost say that she’s an expressionistic photographer; mood and emotion play such a strong role in her photography. Things that aren’t really visible play such a strong role. People think of photography as a record of what’s happened, and she’s interested in what’s not there. And that’s why she works with overexposure and underexposure.”
Lately Mann has returned to her family as subjects. In her studio, she rigged a system for getting tight shots of her children’s faces — a director’s chair, a wood plank and egg foam for cushion. She has about 150 of the pictures and says, “When you lay them all out they’re really powerful, an entire field full of faces.”
Mann has always photographed subjects that are close to her. She says she finds it hard to photograph a stranger and has shied away from it because she’s not comfortable with the responsibility that comes with capturing someone on film. As close as she’s ever really gotten in her professional work was when she photographed neighborhood 12-year-old girls.
“I think that portraiture is almost always manipulative and perhaps even transgressive in a certain sense, and a good portrait can often be very hurtful for the sitter,” she says. She adds that she owns one like that, a Diane Arbus photograph of a little boy clenching a toy hand grenade in what looks like rage. Mann says she’s seen the contact sheet for the photograph and the boy looks normal in every other frame.
“I mean it’s almost always a dance between seduction and exploitation. It’s a thirtieth of a second snapped, taken from someone’s life. And the multifaceted human being couldn’t possibly be captured in a thirtieth of a second.”
Maybe that’s why Mann is taking so many photographs of her husband. While the family portraits have an Edenlike and sometimes eerie look to them, the pictures of Larry are more straightforward. He has developed muscular dystrophy, and his arms and legs have begun to atrophy. Mann has taken to exhaustively documenting her husband and the effect the disease has had on him.
The long-term project has raised some tough questions for her. “Do I take a great photograph or do a take a picture that’s kind to my husband? Because sometimes they’re mutually exclusive.
“In some respects it’s easier to photograph your family because you have a relationship with them, and you love them, and they love you, and you work things out. But in another respect, if you’re making a great picture but it is uncomplimentary to your subject — to your own child or your own husband — then what do you do? You could be in a position to have to choose between your art or your family. They’re really tough questions.”
Mann says she’s never released a picture that caused any pain to her family because they work together. She says her children were always involved with the creative process, suggesting elements to add to photos and even playing a role for the camera.
“You know that expression so many of them have, it’s like a really, really intense, I mean it’s almost hostile but it isn’t quite hostile look they sometimes have. They can do that. I mean I can ask for that. I can say, ‘Now look really intensely at the camera,’ and they can put that on. I mean they’re real actors.”
The same way the Mann children saw themselves playing a role, they see the photographs as art and not reality. Mann tells the story of her daughter, Jessie, who was 11 and going to an opening wearing a dress with big armholes. She said she didn’t want to wear it because people could look in and see her body. When someone pointed out to her that her body would be all over the walls of the gallery, she said, “No those are photographs, it’s not me.”
“They have plenty of personal modesty, but they know they were just a model in a photograph,” Mann says. “It’s a very astute and incisive distinction that they made. They’re completely detached from it. It’s just art. It’s not real to them.”
The photographs of Larry, however, are a bit more real.
“It’s a mixture of quotidian everyday pictures and iconic, strong pictures,” she says. “It’s just everything, from paring his toenails to chopping wood, there’s some nudity, there’s some sex pictures. It really is the entire picture of a marriage, and it’s something I don’t think anyone’s done before. I mean, no woman has photographed a man exhaustively.” Mann names several husbands who have photographed their wives but believes she is the first woman to turn the camera on her husband. And that’s something that excites her. She and Larry have decided to turn his illness into art. Once again Mann’s life and the people in it have become her subjects.
In Mann’s L-shaped work room, filled with prints and frames and white Formica surfaces to look at work, she has several of the black-and-whites of Larry in large black frames, resting on two shelves, one above the other, so she can look at them all together. These pictures show different parts of Larry’s naked body. They’re dreamy, out of focus or washed-out. The background is vague; Mann took them in her studio. In one blurry, light shot his leg is propped up on a chair, the calf noticeably skinnier than it should be.
“He’s a really good sport about this; I mean, they’re very personal pictures,” says Mann. “He really believes that my work is important. And I believe that he is so generous-spirited that he would be willing to put out a photograph of himself that is less than complimentary if it’s a great piece of art, and that’s a really generous thing. That’s a real gift if you think about it.”
Mann has also turned the camera on herself lately. She has used the same setup that she did for the children’s faces to take shots of her own. The images are so close-up they zero in on the eyes, nose and mouth and the shape of the face can’t be determined; sometimes it’s difficult to tell who it is. With the children’s faces, it’s tough to tell them apart. The chin, ears and hairline are left out. The effect is a pair of eyes staring back at the viewer.
Mann says she doesn’t yet know what she will do with her self-portraits. “I’m trying to apply the same candor and honesty to the self-portraits. You know, I just don’t look glamorous,” she laughs. “taking a little of my own medicine.”
Years ago, when Mann was working at Washington and Lee, she came across boxes of glass negatives taken of local scenery by a returning Civil War vet. Many of the places she recognized. They hadn’t changed much in a century. Mann’s work uses that same setting to force us to address the tough issues of today. Her work provokes viewers to think about death and lost innocence.
When asked about her relationship with history, she again shies away from answering, but later writes in an e-mail, “Loss and memory are the twin poles of the Southern artists’ sensibility. … I think my subject is the first cousin of loss and memory: My subject, ultimately, is time and love, how the physical familiar evanesces into shade, shadow. ...”
By revisiting her family and returning to her farm as a backdrop, Mann is adding to their legacy with incredibly intimate pictures of people living, growing and dying in a place that seemingly never changes. And even though the lens is tight on the subjects this time, Mann’s work will always reflect the history of the land and people around her. S
Photographs from Sally Mann’s “Last Measure,” “Immediate Family” and “Deep South” series will be on display at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., May 7 through June 5. The show will then move to Hemp Hill Gallery in Washington. And “Sally Mann: What Remains” will be on display at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington from June 9 through Sept. 7.
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