Review of Sally Mann photographs from ‘Immediate Family’

Sally Mann was born in Lexington, Virginia in 1951. Following a horse riding accident Mann was confined to bed which led her to develop her passion for photography. During this time she took hundreds of ambrotype self portraits. Subsequently Mann has produced several series of photographs covering portraiture, architecture, landscape and still life. She is best known for her sensitive, intimate and sometimes controversial portraits of her family taken with a palpable honesty.[1] Mann captures the true essence of childhood in her black and white photographs of her children; Jessie, Emmett and Virginia. Whilst most of her images are publically available she still manages to convey the feeling of a private collection. This is partly because the viewers know they are genuinely observing an intimate part of someone else’s life and partly because Mann rarely identifies the names of her children in her photographs. This helps the viewer to identify with the portraits, they could be your children, your friends of your family. Many of her photographs are undeniably beautiful in depth, detail and composition. Mann herself states that ‘most of the pictures I take are of the things I love, the things that fascinate and compel me, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to look at or take’.[2] It is for this reason that I have selected the following three photographs to review.


Through portraiture of her children Mann has produced a series of images that are mystical, intimate, evocative and controversial. Mann captures a sense of seductiveness as well as a portrayal of innocence, as can be seen in the image above. The children glare at the camera, mouths set, arrogantly daring the viewer to look at them. Virginia, shown on the left, has a proud, haughty stance, almost scornful and condescending. Jessie on the right appears nonchalant, arms folded protectively over her stomach, her glare defiant.  The children are bare-chested, their chests look vulnerable and undeveloped. Only Emmett looks relaxed with a more quizzical expression in his eyes. The strong composition of the image places Emmett centrally making him focal point. However it is the girls’ poses which rapidly draw the eye. The childrens’ postures reveal their confidence in front of the camera, however even these feisty looking children cannot avoid portraying the innocence of childhood when photographed without the protection of clothing.


The above photograph, Shiva at Whistle Creek, depicts Jessie crouching in water. She is holding herself together with her skinny arms embracing her knees. Her hands are placed together, palm against palm pointing towards the water. Her head is turned to her left, avoiding eye contact with the camera. Her silhouette is illuminated by the light reflecting on the water behind her. Her naked body looks fragile and breakable. It is a photograph of innocence, of  purity. It is angelic rather than pornographic.  The composition, as in the previous photograph, contrasts the sharp foreground detail with the out of focus background. Mann uses this technique to force the viewer to look at what she wants them to, in this instance the crouching shape of her daughter.

Sally Mann’s photographs of naked children created an outcry in the United States. ‘Selling photographs of children naked for profit is immoral’ stated Pat Robertson, a critic.[5] However they are photographs which could be found in any family album, as others have argued  ‘Mann’s photographs are not erotic and clearly reflect a mother’s loving regard’.[6]


The image, Virginia at 6,  is simple and beautiful. Her arms stretch upwards, her body arched. She stands on a shore next to a river. Her wet hair sticks to her side mirroring the ripples of the water. Her head is turned towards the camera and she casually gazes into the lens. Her pose is mystical, almost mermaid like. She stands in harmony with her surroundings. In this pose Mann has captured a  moment of her daughter’s life before it is gone forever. The look in Virginia’s eyes draws in the viewer. She gazes directly at the camera and, through the lens, directly into the eyes of the viewer. Mann uses contrast to draw the viewers into the picture. Virginia’s figure is shrouded in light which highlights the curvature of her body.

Whilst some viewers might argue that the image is scattered with sexual connotations, nudity was clearly an accepted and natural part of Mann’s domestic environment. Although it is not intended to be a sexual image, the fact that the child is naked makes some viewers uncomfortable and challenges their thoughts on what is acceptable. Few artists who challenge the conventional ideals of childhood are as deliberately provocative as Mann. One perspective is that Mann’s photographs are a simple record of moments in her childrens’ lives. Children playing, eating, wounded and sleeping.[8] They are recognisable and intimate moments that almost all mothers experience. Mann claims that ‘many of these pictures are intimate, some fictions and some fantastic, but most are ordinary things that every mother has seen’.[9]

However, another perspective is that the taking of such intimate photographs is complicated and ambiguous as evidenced by the withdrawal of certain photographs from public display due to their perceived pornographic element. Susan Sontag states in On Photography ‘to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time’.[10] This indicates that Sontag believes that photographs can be intrusive and that once an image is captured on film it exists in its own right. To take a photograph, Sontag writes, ‘is to appropriate the thing photographed’.[11] The appropriation, the stealing without touching, the having a semblance of knowledge, Sontag likens to perversion. It can be seen from this that Sontag believes that everything can be photographed and that, as long as the end result is interesting, nothing else really matters. Sally Mann falls victim to this concept, seeing her children as artistic objects, encouraging them to pose in such a way as to enhance the composition and make an interesting photograph. This preference for creating aesthetically pleasing, posed, images rather than capturing the natural reality of childhood is one of the main criticisms of her work. The image of Shiva at Whistle Creek is a more natural depiction of Jessie playing in the water compared to the very posed image of Virginia at 6, holding her body in a pose for the sole purpose of creating an interesting picture. According to Sontag therefore Mann has taken possession of her childrens’ bodies to make them her own through the art of photography. The children have become objects of art possessed by Sally Mann, which many would argue is distasteful.

Perhaps Mann’s instinct to take portraits of her children is based on an effort to preserve a physical moment which after the shutter clicks has already started to fade away and change. In metaphorical terms Susan Sontag articulated that ‘to photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability, precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’.[12] For some, photographs create memories, for others it is simply art.

Sally Mann is clearly a very influential, controversial and accomplished photographer.  She has the ability to take sensitive but provocative images. Some of her photographs in ‘Immediate Family’ portray loving images of her children. However there is  also a disturbing element to some of her other photographs, for example Popsicle Drops or Dog Scratches, which can be viewed as sexualised images. To counter this it is necessary to appreciate the context in which the photographs were taken, a mother photographing her children.  However it can be argued that Mann should be more sensitive in choosing the material which she makes available in the public domain.  The artistic techniques employed by Sally Mann are exceptionally effective. She succeeds in drawing the viewer to the focal part of the image through the use of composition, light and contrast. Whilst her subject matter can be controversial she produces stunning images.

[1] Sally Man Biography: [Date Accessed: 19/12/2011].

[2] Artslope: [Date Accessed: 20/12/2011].

[3] Sally Man Family Pictures: [Date Accessed: 19/12/2011].

[4] Sally Man Family Pictures: [Date Accessed: 19/12/2011].

[5] Smithsonian, Model Family: [Date Accessed: 19/12/2011].

[6] Ibid.

[7]Sally Man Family Pictures: [Date Accessed: 19/12/2011].

[8] Sally Man Biography: [Date Accessed: 19/12/2011].

[9] Sally Mann: The Family and the Land Review: [ Date Accessed: 19/12/2011].

[10] S. Sontag On Photography (Penguin: London,1979) pp.14-15.

[11] S. Sontag On Photography p.4.

[12] S. Sontag On Photography p.15.


2 Responses to “Review of Sally Mann photographs from ‘Immediate Family’”

  1. I thought the photographs you reviewed were absolutely stunning. I particularly liked your comments on ‘Shiva at Whistle Creek’, the connotations to nature were really interesting and I wonder whether the religious reference to Shiva suggests Mann’s considers her children as the three principle Hindu deities (Shiva, Vishnu and Devi)?

    I also found Sontag’s view interesting: ‘According to Sontag therefore Mann has taken possession of her children’s bodies to make them her own through the art of photography.’ It could also be argued that the children’s bodies were Mann’s in the first place as they are her (and her husband’s) flesh and blood…

  2. […] “To take a photograph, Sontag writes, ‘is to appropriate the thing photographed’. The appropriation, the stealing without touching, the having a semblance of knowledge, Sontag likens to perversion. It can be seen from this that Sontag believes that everything can be photographed and that, as long as the end result is interesting, nothing else really matters.” Camera Historica […]

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