Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Sally Mann

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Sally Mann, one of America’s most renowned photographers (born 1951), captured candid images of childhood, sexuality, death and intimate subjects which were often considered controversial. Paradoxically, her work was sublime as well as disquieting, as she probed the intricacies of familial relationships, social realities, and the passage of time, capturing tensions between nature, history, and memory.

After studying photography in her formative years, Mann, at the age of 32, started photographing 12-year-old girls; and after five years published it as a book, ‘At Twelve.’ This was followed by another series on the psychology of relationships, called ‘Dream Sequence.’

When she was 41 she released a book of photographs, ‘Immediate Family’ series—which created an uproar in social circles as well as generated critical acclaim. Here Mann photographed her three children, who often appeared nude and in postures, situations, and settings that were found unpalatable for those times. Viewers found it disturbing to see innocent children often nude or in unsettling postures in everyday activities—the images were also alluding to darker and more serious themes of loss, sexuality, loneliness and death.

When Mann was 42, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago hosted ‘Sally Mann: Still Time,’ a 60-print photographic retrospective covering 20 years of Mann’s work.

The New Mothers, 1989. In this photograph, the way in which the children are standing, and the gesture of their hands cause strong triangular shapes pointing towards the right side of the frame. This contrasted by the direction in which both the dolls are facing i.e. toward the left. A very shallow depth of field ensures that the background is out of focus and all attention goes to what the children are doing.
The New Mothers, 1989. In this photograph, the way in which the children are standing, and the gesture of their hands cause strong triangular shapes pointing towards the right side of the frame. This contrasted by the direction in which both the dolls are facing i.e. toward the left. A very shallow depth of field ensures that the background is out of focus and all attention goes to what the children are doing.

Once she was in her late 40s & 50s, Mann switched her focus to landscape photography, and her work featured photographs from Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama in the series ‘Mother Land’ and ‘Deep South’ series; as well as Civil War battlefields for ‘Last Measure.’

Her landscape photographs capture a lyrical nostalgia through Mann’s special photography techniques; she worked with analog equipment and in large-format B&W, primarily deploying antique glass plate cameras, such as those used in the 19th century in the collodion wet plate process first developed in early 1850s.

 Jessie Bites, 1985.This photograph tells a strong story where the child has bitten the hand of an older person (possibly her sibling), yet still clings on to the hand with a frown on her face. This showcases the temperamental nature of most children when they are young.
Jessie Bites, 1985.This photograph tells a strong story where the child has bitten the hand of an older person (possibly her sibling), yet still clings on to the hand with a frown on her face. This showcases the temperamental nature of most children when they are young.

When she was 52, she published, ‘What Remains,’ a five-part study of mortality ranging from pictures of the decomposing body of her greyhound to photographs of the site where an armed fugitive committed suicide on her property.

Around the same time, Mann started documenting the effects of her husband’s muscular dystrophy. This culminated into the book ‘Proud Flesh’ when she was 58: it showed candid and frank portraits capturing a male subject in moments of intimate vulnerability.

Proud Flesh, 2009. This photograph gives a rather ominous vibe and this is achieved due to the way in which it is lit and how the contrasts come into play. The face is lit from the left side of the frame lighting up his beard, tip of his nose, brow and a part of his hair. His eyes are closed and this area lies in the shadow giving a feeling like he’s in is deathbed or already dead.
Proud Flesh, 2009. This photograph gives a rather ominous vibe and this is achieved due to the way in which it is lit and how the contrasts come into play. The face is lit from the left side of the frame lighting up his beard, tip of his nose, brow and a part of his hair. His eyes are closed and this area lies in the shadow giving a feeling like he’s in is deathbed or already dead.

Filmmaker Steven Cantor directed two films on Mann. When she was 43, his film about her life: ‘Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann’ was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary short. And when Mann was 56, Cantor’s film, ‘What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann’ premiered on television; it was nominated for an Emmy Award.

At the age of 50, Mann was named ‘America’s Best Photographer’ by Time magazine. Mann released her bestselling memoir, ‘Hold Still’ when she was 64. This book was named a finalist for the National Book Award; and bagged the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

At 67, the National Gallery of Art presented a critically lauded show, ‘Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings.’: a show scheduled to travel worldwide till 2020, with 109 prints and several videos, addressing complex issues relating to the American South.

Reflecting on her work, Sally Mann says: ‘To be able to take my pictures, I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about. And I must do so with both ardour and cool appraisal, with the passions of eye and heart, but in that ardent heart there must also be a splinter of ice.’

Besides being credited with a number of books on photography, Mann has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. She exhibits her work around the world, in cities such as New York, Berlin, Chicago, Rome, and Tokyo. Mann, who turned 69 in May this year, currently lives and works in her hometown of Lexington, Virginia, US.

Reynolds Price, writing for Time said, ‘Few photographers of any time or place have matched Sally Mann’s steadiness of simple eyesight, her serene technical brilliance, and the clearly communicated eloquence she derives from her subjects, human and otherwise – subjects observed with an ardour that is all but indistinguishable from love.’

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Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.

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