Mann, Sally (b. 1951)

views updated

Mann, Sally (b. 1951)

Sally Mann's photographs of her three children, produced between approximately 1984 and 1996, opened up new and influential possibilities for the visual representation of childhood. Rejecting sentimentality, Mann's camera captured scenes tinged with sexuality, danger, and ferocity. Mann's work first came to wide public attention in 1992 with the publication of Immediate Family, a book of sixty photographs of Mann's children, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, taken in and around the family home in rural Virginia. Some critics saw suggestions of abuse and exploitation in the pictures; others argued that Mann was revealing a more honest vision of childhood. Mann's work was frequently cited in the heated debates on child pornography of the 1990s, yet, unlike other photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Mann was never threatened with prosecution. In fact, after the publication of Immediate Family, Mann was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

A consummate technician, Mann photographed her children with a large-format camera. Her black-and-white prints are pristine and richly tonal. While her photographs contained suggestions of spontaneity, many were carefully staged. Mann's work consciously quoted earlier, iconic photographs of children by artists such as Edward Weston, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), and Julia Margaret Cameron. This strategy inserted her photographs within an exalted historical context, while at the same time highlighting Mann's own innovations. In Fallen Child (1989), the naked body of Mann's youngest daughter, Virginia, cuts a luminous swath across a grassy lawn. Virginia lies face down, her arms tucked underneath her. Tendrils of curly blond hair splay out around her head like a halo, making reference to Cameron's photographs of children dressed as angels. The camera is positioned over Virginia's prone body, as if the viewer has stumbled across her. She is both a child, perhaps an injured one, and an angel fallen to earth. What at first appear to be tiny dark scratches on Virginia's back are in fact grass clippings. Before our eyes, she becomes a child, engrossed in the game of rolling on freshly cut grass. One can read Fallen Child as an art-historical joke, a statement on child abuse or loss of innocence, or a meticulously crafted formal composition.

Mann was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1951. She received a B.A. from Hollins College, as well as a master's degree in writing from the same institution. From 1971 through 1973 Mann studied photography at the Praestegaard Film School in Denmark. She also studied at the Aegean School of Fine Arts and the Ansel Adams Yosemite Workshop. Mann has received grants for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her photographs are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of Art, among others. Mann lives and works in Lexington, Virginia.

See also: Images of Childhood; Victorian Art.


Ehrhart, Shannah. 1994. "Sally Mann's Looking-Glass House." In Tracing Cultures: Art History, Criticism, Critical Fiction, ed. Miwon Kwon. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art.

Higonnet, Anne. 1998. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames and Hudson.

Mann, Sally. 1992. Immediate Family. New York: Aperture.

Weinberg, Jonathan. 2001. Ambition and Love in Modern American Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

A. Cassandra Albinson