Sally Man outside Cy Twombly's house. Photo: The New York Times. Sally Man outside Cy Twombly's house. Photo: The New York Times.

The American Landscape

Sally Mann was born in Lexington, Virginia in 1951 and has been active for over four decades. She started her career as a landscape photographer where the American South was her primary subject, then working on her still life, architecture, and portrait. In fact, Mann's entire career has been primarily in her own home environment, thus keeping close to her own roots. The American South is closely linked to Mann's artistry.

Early work by Mann, 1972-73. Photo: sallymann.com Early work by Mann, 1972-73. Photo: sallymann.com

Even before Mann's first solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in 1977, her work was featured in the art world. In the 1980s, the series At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988) received great criticism. Mann herself found her artistic alias with this series, a study of what it is like to be a girl and a young woman. But it was with the Immediate Family series (1992) that she seriously drew public attention.

Works from the series "At Twelve". Photo: sallymann.com Works from the series "At Twelve". Photo: sallymann.com

The fuss over Immediate Family

The series consisted mostly of black and white photographs of Mann's own family, with her three children in focus. The series featured Mann's children in everyday situations such as where the children's play, family dinners or even sleeping. To a large extent, the series was photographed at the family's desolate country home. Despite the everyday motif of the series, Immediate Family caused widespread discussion in the United States.

From the series "Immediate Family". Photo: sallymann.com From the series "Immediate Family". Photo: sallymann.com

The melancholic undertones and that the children were often naked in the photographs resulted in conservative voices to accuse Mann of sexualizing her children and criticized her parenthood. Some accused the series of child pornography. Man herself claimed she never experienced the need to separate her artistry from parenthood - they are both inspired by each other, and nudity is a common feature of childhood for many.

Want to see more works by Sally Mann? A selection is available here!

From "Immediate Family". Photo: sallymann.com From "Immediate Family". Photo: sallymann.com

Controversy in the cultural war

During the same period as the Immediate Family series was discussed, a broader conversation about the direction of culture in the United States was going on. Subjects such as abortion, homosexuality, religion or weapon regulations put the discussion at its head. The cultural war became a controversy between those with conservative values with those with more progressive voices. Despite the negative criticism, Immediate Family was also met with admiration. When Time Magazine appointed Mann to 2001's best photographer, the critically acclaimed series was specifically mentioned as a contributing factor.

Works from "Immediate Family". Photo: sallymann.com Works from "Immediate Family". Photo: sallymann.com

Deep South, Mother Land and What Remains

During the 21st century, Sally Mann continued with her landscape photography in two series, Deep South and Mother LandDeep South consisted of 65 black and white photographs depicting ghostly landscapes, old battlefields as well as a place known for racist lynching in 1955.

From the series "Deep South". Photo: sallymann.com From the series "Deep South". Photo: sallymann.com

In the book What Remains (2003), Mann returns to exploring themes such as death and corruption, dividing them into four parts. The first section shows Mann's dead dog, alongside photographs of scattered corpses.

Photography from "The Body Farm", from the series "What Remains". Photo: sallymann.com Photography from "The Body Farm", from the series "What Remains". Photo: sallymann.com

The bodies were part of a research project in the vicinity of Mann's home, where the foreclosure process was being investigated. The next section consists of photographs from Mann's property, where a detained prisoner who managed to arm himself was killed by a police officer. The third section shows the battle at Antietam, a place of significance in the American Civil War. The last series consists of portraits of Mann’s three children, ending What Remains with a hopeful sentiment.

Mortality as a recurring theme

Death and the transience of life is an ongoing theme in Sally Mann's artistry. In the series Proud Flesh (2009) she has photographed her husband Larry for a period of six years suffering from muscular dystrophy.

From the series "Proud Flesh". Photo: sallymann.com From the series "Proud Flesh". Photo: sallymann.com

Death, melancholy, decay, and sexuality are all motives that can be found in Sally Mann's work. These are themes that make many uncomfortable and is a reason for the controversies surrounding Mann's artistry that has emerged over the years. Several of Mann’s series are omitted and show both her husband and child in situations that most of us might prefer to keep to ourselves. At the same time, many of the works show a great measure of security that exists between Mann as a photographer and her human motive, where strength is also a primary element.

Self Portrait, "Ambrotypes". Photo: sallymann.com Self Portrait, "Ambrotypes". Photo: sallymann.com

Sally Mann and Cy Twombly

The small town of Lexington hosted another great artist, namely the painter Cy Twombly. Mann and Twombly shared several common themes in their work, despite their distinctive artistic expressions. Sally Mann's parents got to know Twombly at a dinner in the 1940's when Twombly was still in his adolescence. When the artist moved back to the hometown of 1994 after many years in Italy, Mann and Twombly's relationship developed into a close friendship, which remained strong until Twombly's death in 2011.

"Untitled: Slippers and Flare" Photo: Sally Mann via Gagosian Gallery. "Untitled: Slippers and Flare" Photo: Sally Mann via Gagosian Gallery.

After Twombly's death, Mann's photographs of both the painter's home and studio were released under the name Remembered Light: Cy Twombly in Lexington 2016.

Son's passing away

During the same period as Mann worked with the upcoming exhibition Remembered Light, the family suffered a tragedy when Sally Mann's oldest child Emmett took his life. The son had suffered from schizophrenia for a large part of his life, and his death caused Mann to isolate herself for several years in her family's home. In her memoirs, Mann writes that she never separated her artwork from the role of a parent, but they were both strongly linked. Perhaps it's just that, parenthood and artistic work as two sides of the same coin that make Sally's Man's photography so unique and admired.

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