Photo Inspiration: Sally Mann


While studying at NSCAD, one photographer stood out among those we studied in class. Sally Mann's beautiful but haunting photographs influenced how I thought about family pictures and made me aware that the more somber and wistful moments of life are just as interesting as the happy ones.

Born in Virginia in the 50's, Sally Mann is best known for her large-format black-and-white photographs of her young children, deteriorating landscapes and self-portraits. She gained attention and controversy with her second collection, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988). Critics complained about the exploitative nature of the photographs but other praised the collection for capturing “the confusing emotions and developing identities of adolescent girls.

In 1992, Mann released Immediate Family, a collection black-and-white photographs of her young children taken around her family's cottage. Bob Keefe, who worked at Washington and Lee University in the 70's while Mann was the school photographer there, sums up his thoughts on her work:

"... she began taking pictures of people – sometimes kids, not too different from the pictures all of you took of your children and their friends, except hers are better and they aren’t always about the good times." (2).

Typical childhood scenes are explored in this series: swimming, dressing up, napping but there's also darker themes of mortality, vulnerability and sexuality. These themes attracted a lot of controversy to her work again. However, Mann defended her work saying the photographs were "natural through the eyes of a mother, since she has seen her children in every state: happy, sad, playful, sick, bloodied, angry and even naked." (3). Critics agreed and The New Republic called it "one of the great photograph books of our time." (4). In 2001, Mann was labeled as "America's Best Photographer" (5) by Time magazine.

Her more recent work has revolved around southern landscapes, death & mortality, and introspective self-portraits. All of which are beautiful, provocative  sometimes frightening & disturbing. The reaction to her photographs are almost as interesting as the work itself, forcing us to confront our own insecurities and personal limitations. It makes me consider my own work: what I choose to include in my photos and what I leave out and why. When I'm looking for inspiration I keep returning to her Immediate Family photographs. Mann's goal was to capture an honest portrait of childhood and by inviting us into these intensely intimate moments she remind us all of the vulnerable and complex facets of growing up.

To me, that is something worth capturing.


1  Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago IL

2  Bob Keefe,

3  Photographers and photography. "Sally Mann: Mother and American Photographer"

4  Luc Sante, Luc Sante on Photography: The Nude and the Naked. The New Republic, May 1, 1995, p30

5  Reynolds Price, "Time Magazine" July 9th, 2011