For more than forty years, Sally Mann has photographed near her home in Lexington, Virginia. Though her subjects are varied—her family, the landscape and battlefields of the South, the legacy of slavery—Mann uses them all to explore her relationship to the South. Since the mid-1990s, she has also experimented with nineteenth-century photo processes and readily embraces the imperfections in her technique, seeing them as apt metaphors for the ideas she wishes to express.
The images here are included in the major exhibition Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, which debuted at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, was on view at the Getty Museum earlier this year, and is now open at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
I interviewed Mann for the exhibition’s audio tour (eight tracks are embedded below, and the full tour is available free online), but the conversation begins with pictures Mann took of her family.
When Sally Mann began taking pictures, she photographed the people around her, including her young children.
The camera was a participant in our daily life. —Sally Mann
Laura Hubber: How did photography fit into the lives of your children?
Sally Mann: The camera was just always set up. If we were at the cabin on the river, it would be set up on the porch, and I would just wait until something interesting happened. Like they’d be playing a board game on the table and one of them would assume an interesting posture. Things like that. There were pictures that came about because I would see something, and I didn’t have the camera. This was, of course, before the iPhone, so I couldn’t make a snap. I’d make a mental or written note, and then we would recreate the pictures as best we could.
LH: How long does it take to capture an image with an 8 x 10″ view camera?
SM: With the 8 x 10, there is such a thing as a spontaneous picture, but it’s rare and hard to achieve. The exposures are often much longer than they would be with a smaller camera, like a 35mm or a digital, so what I tended to do was to set up a picture within the 8 x 10″ frame and then put the film in, and just hope not too much changed.
LH: I think sometimes, if people see the family pictures on their own, they think of them as documentary, as opposed to constructed images.
There was a lot of collaboration, and the children were very, very sophisticated actors. —Sally Mann
SM: It would be gratifying if people thought of the family pictures as documentary pictures, because, in many cases, that’s what we were aiming for. We were trying to make them look completely spontaneous, as if they had just happened. It’s almost impossible to do that with an 8 x 10” view-camera. The kids understood that early on. They all picked up immediately what the issues with the view-camera were, and they knew what would work. They knew movement resulted in blur. They knew that to furrow their brow and squint their eyes meant that they were going to look mean. If I said, “All right. I just want to you give me that intense look,” they could do it in the blink of an eye.
There was one person who wrote into The New York Times and said, “Those children are mean. They have ice in their veins,” and we just roared with laughter. Our children were anything but mean. They just knew exactly how to act and could, in a thirtieth of a second, turn into little street hoodlums.
After photographing her children, Mann turned her attention to the landscape of the Deep South.
In a certain way, I was ambushed by the backgrounds. —Sally Mann
LH: I’m curious about your personal journey out from the domestic sphere and into the landscape of the South. With your children grown, did you feel you kind of had the freedom to go farther away?
SM: I said one time that the children had let go of the apron strings, and that really was kind of true. But I had also, in a certain sense, let go of them as models and actors. Every artist, I guess, gets to the end of a project, and we got there. There was no acrimony, no rebellion or anything. We just sort of mutually agreed that it was over. They were in their preteens. They had their own lives. They had bikes. They had friends.
Toward the end of the family pictures, I would go out and find a beautiful place to take a picture and then put a kid in front of it. And I thought, “Wait, this is crazy. Why don’t I just take the beautiful background?” And that’s what I started doing.
On the first day of my trip I take the one picture that I’ve been burning for my whole life. —Sally Mann
I packed up all my cameras and my wet-plate darkroom in the back of my Suburban, said goodbye to my family, and drove down south to Mississippi and Louisiana. I’d never done anything like this before. I ate saltines, drank tepid gin, and slept in the car night after night after night. I got up really early and took pictures and took runs on dirt roads and basically was by myself for a long time. It was a very strange and heady feeling to be so alone and to be making pictures.
When you get down there in Mississippi and Louisiana, there is just something ineffably indescribable about the feel and the mood. It’s the heat. It’s the quality of the light. It’s the extravagant fertility and rampant foliage and size of the rivers. Everything about it is just bigger and deeper and richer.
From her forays into the Deep South, Mann returned to the Civil War battlefields near where she lived to see if she could find, and perhaps conjure, traces of their violent past.
What do these deaths mean, on a piece of ground? And when you think about it, what piece of ground hasn’t been death inflected? —Sally Mann
SM: I live in the South of the Civil War, in the land of Robert E. Lee and more Civil War battles than any other state in the Union. The wet-plate pictures of battlefields give the appearance that they were shot in the gloaming—the afterlight at the end of the day—but most of the time they were shot in broad daylight. A lot of these pictures are a result of my wish to put a tenebrous, dark, sort of Stygian feel to these battlefields, not unlike the actual feel after a particularly smoky battle.
LH: What do you hope a viewer might think, or contemplate, when they’re looking at these battlefields?
SM: I would never presume to hope that I could make work that was clear enough for the viewer to see what I was trying to do. But in the best cases, I hope to make people stop and observe even the most mongrel, quiet, orphaned pieces of land, and remember that all of our land is death inflected, and blood-soaked. And God help us, let’s not do that again. So, in a certain way, they’re cautionary pictures. But in other ways it’s just a way to help people see the landscape in a different way.
Abide with Me
Throughout her career Mann photographed Virginia Carter, the African American woman who worked for Mann’s parents and was a second mother to her. Mann included some of these images in a series she called Abide with Me, about her effort to come to terms with the legacy of slavery in the American South.
LH: Did Virginia Carter pose for you a lot? And did she talk to you about your career and the actual making of photography?
SM: While Virginia Carter, the African American woman who raised me, was alive, I really didn’t have a career. I just took a lot of pictures, and she got used to it. I photographed her a lot. When I got my first 5 x 7″ view-camera, she was the first person I took a picture of. She didn’t think of it as a career. She just thought it was something that I did, and I guess that’s sort of how I think about it, too.
This picture was damn near impossible to take. For one thing, we were in a retirement home, and the only light was a flickering fluorescent in a small window. I was determined to get one last photograph of “The Two Virginias”—Virginia Franklin Carter and Virginia Franklin Mann—my daughter named after her. Virginia Carter, or Gee-Gee, as we called her, was in her late 90s by then, and I’d been taking pictures of the two of them together for several years. This would be the last one. The problem was to get both of them to hold exquisitely still for several seconds. Gee-Gee’s hand wasn’t supported by anything, and even a younger person has problems holding an extremity perfectly still.
When Mann’s children were older, she returned to them as subjects, photographing them in extreme close-up.
These portraits ended up speaking to the evanescence of our mortal selves, arguing strongly, again, for the old carpe diem approach to life. —Sally Mann
SM: These portraits were made as part of my What Remains project, which was a multi-part exploration of death and ramifications of death. They were meant to be life-affirming images of my living children, although often with that Byronic aspect of moodiness that goes with the territory of them being in their early 20s.
These pictures were made with an 8 x 10″ camera. But, instead of leaning the children up against the wall, I laid them flat on their back and had this camera predatorily hanging over their heads. It solved the problem of [blurred] movement. In some cases, they actually went to sleep during the picture-taking.
LH: What are those streaks?
SM: In many cases, you’ll have tiny, what I call “comets,” those white vertical lines that you see on her right cheek. Those are pieces of dust that landed on the plate [during the coating] with the collodion before it goes into the silver nitrate. It leaves those marks. The diagonal streaks on this plate are from some other abuse of collodion. I can’t really explain what causes those streaks except that, for the life of me, I can’t seem to get a perfect collodion plate.
Among the final images of the exhibition are those from a series Mann made of her husband Larry called Proud Flesh that chronicles the effects a chronic disease has had on his body.
Somewhere in the late ‘80s, I noticed [my husband] Larry was limping, which, of course, he vigorously denied, being an extremely athletic, strong man who had been a blacksmith for the first years of our marriage. Finally, we went to a doctor, and they confirmed he had a very rare form of muscular dystrophy that typically shows up in middle age. It affects the limbs, and his back and stomach muscles are increasingly weakened. It’s a terrible disease, and he has borne it with extraordinary dignity and has great self-carriage and pride.
I photographed him using a collodion negative because it seems like the flaws in the emulsion can become metaphors for the wound and in this case, the aging body and the mutability of the self. I named this picture “Hephaestus” for the Greek god of blacksmiths, who was expelled from Mount Olympus because of a physical deformity.
Larry’s willingness to appear to the viewing public as naked and vulnerable and physically compromised is a testament to his unwavering support for my work and to our years of trust and love. Those late winter afternoons that we spent in my studio with the wood stove fired up and a bottle of exceptional sipping bourbon were some of the happiest in our 48 years of marriage.
This plate has all that wonderful, swirly, almost metallic stuff going on diagonally across his body. I get asked all the time how in the world I did that. I have no idea. I know this sounds completely wacky, but I think it’s just a felicitous artifact of the process. I call it the “angel of uncertainty.” She just comes down and deposits something glorious on my picture.