American photographer Sally Mann is best-known for her famed body of work, Immediate Family, which documents her three children, Jessie, Emmett and Virginia. Mann's photographs highlight a heightened maturity in her subjects that defies their age, creating a tension between the push of childhood and the pull of adulthood. While her work initially came under public scrutiny for its intimate subject matter, at the root of it is a family album filled with the stories, memories and moments that define Mann as a mother and photographer.
First published in 1992, Immediate Family has been lauded by critics as one of the great photography books of our time, and among the most influential. Taken against the Arcadian backdrop of her woodland summer home in Virginia, Sally Mann’s extraordinary, intimate photographs of her children reveal truths that embody the individuality of her own family yet ultimately take on a universal quality. With sublime dignity, acute wit, and feral grace, Mann’s pictures explore the eternal struggle between the child’s simultaneous dependence and quest for autonomy.
Mann began photographing her children as soon as they were born. “For years I shot the underappreciated and extraordinary domestic scenes of any mother’s life with the point-and-shoot,” she recalls in Hold Still. “But it wasn’t really until 1985 that I put on my photography eyes, and began to see the potential for serious imagery within the family.” She considers her first “good family picture” to be a shot of Jessie’s face swollen from insect bites. Immediately, the darker side of childhood, as opposed to more pristine and tired visions of innocence, attracted her. She describes her family photographs as a superstitious means of warding off real harm to her family.
Immediate Family tapped into collective anxiety about child pornography and made her the most notorious art photographer of her generation. The book has since become a classic in the history of photography, and a milestone in the history of childhood. The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed in February 1991 by food writer Raymond Sokolov critiquing Mann’s work. The paper accompanied it with a nude image of Virginia that had run on the cover of Aperture Magazine in 1990. Here, however, they censored the photograph by placing black bars over her eyes, nipples, and vagina. “It felt like a mutilation, not only of the image but also of Virginia herself and of her innocence,” writes Mann. She argues that the censorship, not the picture itself, gave the image a tinge of pornography.
“The hypocritical, prudish, and philistine English public, when unable to find the art in a work of art, instead looked for the man in it.” - Oscar Wilde
Sally Mann, Damaged Child, 1986
Sally Mann, The Ditch, 1987
Sally Mann, The Perfect Tomato, 1990
Sally Mann, The Easter Dress, 1986
Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985