And So Began My Admiration for Sally Mann…

Initially, I found myself drawn to Sally Mann because I connected so deeply with the photographs from her Immediate Family series.  In this series, she photographed her children with an 8 x 10 view camera and imposed a haunting sense of reality lurking behind the innocence of childhood: “These are photographs of my children living their lives here too.  Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things every mother has seen—a wet bed, a bloody nose, candy cigarettes.  They dress up, they pout and posture, they paint their bodies, they dive like otters in the dark river.”[1]  Mann allows her home environment to dictate her compositions as she becomes inspired to photograph truths within moments of childhood.

Sally Mann, Damaged Child, from Immediate Family series, 1984. Gelatin silver contact print, 8 x 10 inches.

These “ordinary things every mother has seen” are subtly integrated into breathtaking images of the land behind her house and close-up compositions of her children. Damaged Child, for instance, is a close-up shot of Mann’s oldest daughter shown from the chest up.  What appears to be a beautiful photographic portrait of a young girl suddenly becomes tinged with disturbance as the viewer begins to recognize her swollen right eye.  These haunting undertones are a theme Mann plays out in her works.[2]  Also well-known for her landscape photographs, Mann’s Untitled depicts a similar glow of haunting land that is recurrent and echoed throughout many of her photographs.   Her photographs are rendered in black and white, but tea-toned, which formally allows for greater contrast between the lights and darks.  This contrast simultaneously operates to reveal innocence juxtaposed with worldly corruption as her children’s bodies glow in comparison to the land they are connected to.

Sally Mann, Untitled, from the Motherland series: Georgia, 1996. Tea-toned gelatin silver print, 34 ¼ x 47 inches.

Mann proclaims, “When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths ‘told slant,’ just asEmily Dickinson commanded.  We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up.  It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality, and beauty.  But we tell it all without fear and without shame.”[3]  Just as Mann wished to truth within her photographs, so have I attempted to capture moments of Lennon that echo her innocence and obliviousness at this present stage in her life.

Polly Nance, Lennon and the Land, 2011. Digital image, 8 x 10 inches.

The first photograph I constructed in Mann’s style was an image of Lennon sitting on my lap by a creek.  Desperate to get out of the house, I had taken my daughter on incredibly long and hot journey to a creek while she was suffering from pink eye and had developed a heat rash.  This moment seemed like the perfect opportunity to capture a Sally Mann-like photograph of sweet Lennon in her misery.  Lennon and the Land depicts a glowing landscape in the background with high contrasts of dark and light as Lennon sits centered in the composition and stares off to the left side of the photograph.  It is similar to Mann’s Damaged Child with subtle overtones showcasing childhood realties of pink eye, heat rash, and exhaustion.  I cropped the image as well as the others rendered in this manner in order to stay true to Mann’s 8 x 10 camera view.  I digitally enhanced the photos in black and white and boosted the color tones so that they would echo Mann’s beautiful tea-toned compositions.  I additionally lightened the photographs so that the land would glow and the light would be an overpowering force within the photograph.

Polly Nance, Lennon and Rush on a Rainy Day, 2011. Digital image, 8 x 10 inches.

The second photograph I composed in a Mann style, Lennon and Rush on a Rainy Day, is one of my son and Lennon looking outside my bedroom window on a rainy day.  I stripped both of their shirts so that they would be similarly gendered in hopes of capturing Lennon’s adoration for her brother.  Lennon is a baby still and unaware of any gender difference that separates her from her brother.  It reminded me of Mann’s photograph, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, where all three children are depicted bare-chested and glaring with arms crossed at the camera.  I took Mann’s idea but transformed my use of her style with an urban construction of landscape and indoor space.  My backyard lies in the city and does not posses the same magical quality as Mann’s vast landscapes, but my photograph still alludes to the yearning to connect to the outdoors.

Sally Mann, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, from Immediate Family series, 1989. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches.

In my opinion, one of the most compelling aspects of Mann’s photographs is her ability to capture her children’s intense stares directly pointed at the camera (or viewer).  I managed to capture one of these isolated moments where Lennon looked directly at me, while she sat next to her brother who stared off into the distance.

This photograph, Lennon Wants to be Just Like Her Brother, is rendered similarly in subtle brown tones like in Mann’s photographs, yet it is the shadows that create a dramatic moment within the composition.  There are still high contrasts between lights and darks but their inclusion suggests this is a moment of temporality.  Lennon will not always think she is just like, and want to be, her big brother and I feel as if this photograph truly captured her spirit while alluding to the future.

Polly Nance, Lennon Wants to be Just like Her Brother, 2011. Digital image, 8 x 10 inches.


[1] Sally Mann, Immediate Family (New York: Aperture, 1992): n.p.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

9 thoughts on “And So Began My Admiration for Sally Mann…

  1. What a concept. Capturing the realities of childhood; not just the good or the bad but the awkwardness, uncertainties and curiosities. Your adaptation of Sally Mann’s technique is very impressive. It’s similar; not quite copying the style.

    Thanks for this. I had never heard of Sally Mann before now. I’ll have to look into her work more.

    • Well, I’m so glad to introduce you to Sally Mann’s work. I hadn’t heard of her either, before working on this project for an art history class. She’s incredibly haunting… her images are hard to forget… eerily beautiful. Thanks so much for stopping by! 🙂

  2. Really interesting blog, Polly. The lit journal PANK is taking submissions for a special issue on Parenting and you might want to take a look and maybe submit some of your photographs.

  3. Nice work Polly! You might want to take a look at this blog, which is written by the daughter of my best friend from high school. She and her husband are both photographers, portrait-style, but they have an approach which goes way beyond the usual. I know you aren’t particularly interested in becoming a portrait photographer, but you might find it more interesting after seeing this blog (just in case you ultimately get temporarily stuck in the portraiture world on your way to somewhere else!)

    http://narrativeimagesphoto.com/blog/2012/03/11/baby-taj/

    • Thank you! I will definitely check out your friend’s daughter’s blog! I am not opposed to portraits… I just don’t want to do weddings all the time because it will take up all my weekend time and I wouldn’t be able to spend that with my husband and kids. I’m sure I’ll have to photograph many different subjects, including people, on my photography path. Thank you so much for commenting and for passing along the blog! 🙂

  4. I remember studying Mann in school and LOVING her work! I know there is a lot of controversy over what she does.. but you can not deny the beauty and intensity of how she captured her children. I like how you paralleled that to your own. Well done.

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