COVER The lyrical lens: Sally Mann's poetry in stillness
Sitting in a retro red vinyl chair at a 1950s' formica-topped table with Pellet, her rescued Jack Russell terrier, curled near her feet, Sally Mann recalls the first photograph she ever made. Using her father's camera, she snapped a staged shot of her prep-school roommate and a male friend lying naked on a bed of pine needles in the forest. The image almost got 17-year-old Mann kicked out of school.
"It was a real good lesson for me about photography's intimation of truth but inherent mendacity," says Mann, whom Time magazine named America's Best Photographer in 2001. "It taught me that photography is a dangerous medium."
That image wouldn't be the last of Mann's to stir controversy. Her critically lauded black-and-white photographs of her children, collected as Immediate Family, came under fire in the 1990s, when Senator Jesse Helms tried to police arts funding on the basis of "decency."
Taken in Rockbridge County, where Mann has spent her entire life, the images explore the flux of innocence and non-innocence and the precarious nature of childhood. In some pictures, her children are nude; in others, they appear to be– or actually are– injured.
"I used to think of those family pictures, those really terrible ones, as inoculants," says Mann, who sums up her focus as "time, love, memory, and loss."
For the past decade, Mann has used the scarring effects of wet colloidal printing, a technique pioneered by 19th century photographers, to create images of southern landscapes and physical decay. "I have always loved the aesthetic of the process," she says, "the contemplative, almost reverential, memorial quality of it."
When Nick Nichols approached Mann about participating in the Festival of the Photograph, she says, "I thought it sounded like a good time," says Mann. "It's great to see Virginia embrace photography."
For her Second Street Gallery exhibition, Mann plans to show a range of work— big faces, dog bones, still lifes— all shot in her new studio.
Although she's currently engaged in several projects, including a series of self-portraits, two bodies of work about her husband, plus a study of race, what Mann really wishes she'll be asked in her Paramount interview are her horses. "So, Sally, tell me about every minute of the Biltmore Race," she jokes, referring to her love of endurance riding.
Recently, Mann, 56, says she reviewed contact sheets from her early career, and she was surprised by the similarity to her current ones. She notes, "There's still this same siren song from the same voices in the landscape."
Sally Mann's exhibition "The Given: Studio work," will be on view June 1-30 at Second Street Gallery. 115 Second St. NE. On June 8, Alex Chadwick will interview Mann at the Paramount Theater, 4-6pm. On June 9, What Remains, Steve Cantor's feature-length documentary about Mann, will screen at Vinegar Hill Theater at 1pm. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, visit festivalofthephotograph.org.
Photo by Rebecca D'Angelo