What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann

I saw a great documentary yesterday about the life and work of an amazing woman.

It’s called What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann by Steven Cantor.

Sally Mann is a Southern American photographer who specializes in black and white photographs taken with an ancient bellows camera, a big 8×10 box that she hauls all around her family land in Virginia. She looks like an alchemist when she is involved in the process of taking these wet-plate collodion photos, working with bottles of silver nitrate and big glass plate negatives. Her fingers are sometimes black from the chemicals.


Sally Mann with her camera, © Molly Roberts, Smithsonian Magazine May 2005

She is The Real Deal. She made a big impression on me because of her philosophy: “The things that are closest to you are the things that you can photograph the best and unless you photograph what you love, you’re not gonna make good art.”

Her entire family is intriguing. There is something really special about their willingness to bare themselves physically but, more interestingly, emotionally to the person(s) viewing the art Mann makes. Her entire family are very genuine about their lives. They are also stupid beautiful.

Mann’s fame began with some exquisite, intimate nudes of her children. There was controversy among us, as there was in the art world (as I’m sure there will always be), over these photos and interesting ethical questions were raised in our group. In my humble opinion: If it isn’t worth fighting over, it usually isn’t all that good. I thought it was notable that no one in our group questioned the beauty or poignance of these images.

I am impressed by Mann’s self-proclaimed “naive” courage to share the work. It would have been a great loss to the art world for her to hide these images for fear of the wrong kind of person thinking the wrong kind of thing. What do you think?

Her work on death and decay is disturbing. A dark truth that you don’t want to face. An aura of enchantment somehow pervades her landscapes, like a fairy tale in real life. Since I ordinarily stay on the sunnier side of things, I’m surprised I am so drawn to her work. I think that’s part of her artistry.

She is a unique and rugged woman. She embraces “sentimentality” (and shows that it is not weak to do so). She juxtapozes themes of life and death. She photographs with great skill but still hopes for accidents to enhance her photos. She questions her judgment. She cuts her husband’s hair in their yard. There are so many reasons I like her.

Here is one of my favorite Sally Mann photos:

At Warm Springs, 1991, from the series Immediate Family © Sally Mann

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2 thoughts on “What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann

  1. Pingback: You | karla turner photography

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