What Remains: the Life and Work of Sally Mann

(Zeitgeist Films, 2006)


Sally Mann became famous by photographing her three children nude around 1990, and her life story is fascinating. Sally was quite a beautiful child herself, and her first book "At Twelve" featured a photo of herself at that age, along with photos of current 12-year-old girls in her rural Virginia hometown. I've heard that Sally was sued and under a court order not to show a photo she once made, and if true I suspect it was a girl in that book, which the DVD documentary "What Remains" doesn't mention at all.

Her more famous book, "Immediate Family," featured her own children, and was applauded by art critics but attacked by political opportunists as indecent. Sally's portraits are beautifully done, showing the kids in more or less spontaneous poses around their rural home, using large format cameras on monochrome film. None of the photos are erotic; they merely document a natural clothing-optional lifestyle.

During that period I remember seeing  a vandalized copy of one of Sally's books in the Barnes & Noble's Bookstore on Broadway and 18th Street in Manhattan, and I thought: This damaged book with torn pages is an indictment of prudery if ever there was one. If someone disagrees with publicly exhibiting images of child nudity, they should be free to express their opinion, but not by vandalizing property that doesn't belong to them.

The photo that is pointed to most often as "pornographic" is of one of her daughters, Jessie, lying on a couch with her hand near her exposed pubic area. But the photo is not at all pornographic to anyone who is accustomed to family nudity. It's a normal, everyday scene. If I recall correctly, that particular photo is not in any of Sally's books, but it may be seen on the Web and may be purchased as a fine art print.

When daughter Jessie was 18, she was interviewed by the photography journal Aperture to dispel rumors that the children resented the early photos. Sally eventually moved on to photograph landscapes, clothed portraits, and other subjects, but her most important work is the early photographs of her children.

Sally's work isn't spectacular or awe-inspiring like Ansel Adams or even David Hamilton, though I've never even seen any of her original prints (as I have Ansel's and Jock Sturgis'), but her images are well worth seeing and studying even in reproduction, and her courage should earn her a permanent place in the history of photography. The DVD documentary is nicely done, too, and well worth watching. Available from Amazon.com