When a successful artist changes focus, she takes a big risk. After all, why tamper with a tried-and-true formula? Often the experiment fails, or at the very least, fails to bring the same acclaim as the work that first gained notoriety.
So when internationally acclaimed artist Sally Mann stopped photographing her children in the early '90s, and instead focused her camera on the landscape of her native South, she knew she was taking an artistic gamble. But the results and the reviews have shown that her gamble has paid off big.
Although Mann's intimate photos of her children have been criticized by some for being exploitative, they're what got Mann noticed among even the most casual art-world observers. Mann's lush, evocative landscapes may be far less controversial, but the sheer beauty and passion evidenced in these photos has kept everyone in the art world talking marveling, even, that she has managed to switch photographic genres with such ease.
Although it is rare for Mann to show her work outside of New York, her photographs will be on display April 7-May 20 at Reynolds Gallery. "Sally Mann: The Family and the Land." will include images from Mann's three most recent series of works: "Deep South: Landscapes of Mississippi and Louisiana;" "Mother Land: Landscapes of Georgia and Virginia;" and "Immediate Family."
Style caught up with Mann by telephone at her home in Lexington, where she took a break from working in the darkroom to talk about her work and her upcoming exhibition.
Style: How did you first become interested in photography?
Mann: I don't remember, really. I was so young. I started when I was 17. When you're that young, you just sort of fall into things. I think I have always had a good visual acuity. My father used to call me "sharp eyes." We'd be in the car on the way to the beach and would play games like who can see the first Michigan license plate, and it was always me.
Plus photography was just easier than writing. I always wanted to be a writer, except I wasn't good enough.
Style: You have an MFA from Hollins in writing. Do you see any parallels between writing and photography?
Mann: Oh yes. At least my kind of photography. I think a lot of what I'm doing is evocation. I'm trying to stir some sort of deep memory in people. Photography has been used as an agent for cultural formation for a long time, I think, particularly as part of the postmodernist movement, but I want to use it more as a sort of spiritual and emotional inquiry, to establish photography's connection to our lives in a meaningful way. ... I'm trying to insert some affection into what I see as a rather passionless art world.
Style: How did this exhibition at Reynolds Gallery come about?
Mann: I met [Bev Reynolds] at a dinner party a couple of years ago and she asked if I could do a show. We had to work through the gallery in New York we don't do a lot of shows outside of New York City. But because it was Virginia, I had a lot of leverage.
Style: You are one of our best-known contemporary photographers. Did this make it more or less difficult for you to embark on a radically new project, to go from photographing your children to taking pictures of landscapes?
Mann: It was a big gamble, I guess. It wasn't one that I calculated. I didn't sit there and say, "I wonder if the critics are going to like this." ... You just take the pictures that move you and you just pray that they move somebody else not to be vapid about it.
Style: Are there any specific images in your "Immediate Family" series that inspired you to change your focus and begin photographing landscapes?
Mann: I began to notice that I was getting ambushed by my backgrounds. I would go out to take a picture of my kids, and the way that often worked was I would find a really nice background and put the kids in front of it. ... I began to find that I didn't need to put the kids in front of it anymore ... the kids began to get smaller and smaller in the picture. It was almost comical.
Style: Do you make all of your own prints?
Mann: Yes. It's sad, I don't even feel like an artist, actually. I feel like a factory worker a lot of the time. I don't think I take pictures more than two weeks a year. But there is just no one else who can make these prints; they are fairly complicated to do.
Style: What does it mean to be a Southern artist?
Mann: I think Southerners are more wrapped up with questions of memory, with place, with family. I think all those paeans to the glorious light of the South are unique to Southerners, and the whole issue of that willingness to experiment with high dosages of romance. Such amounts would be fatal to the Barbara Kruegers and the Cindy Shermans all the postmodernists of the world.
Style: You must take dozens, even hundreds of photographs for every one you choose to print and show to the public. How do you decide what gets seen? What makes a good photograph?
Mann: Probably every artist will recognize this phenomenon or at least every photographer. When you have multiple images you go through your negatives, images, contact sheets, and you light on one picture. Years later, when you look at these same images, you will see something entirely different because your aesthetic has changed.
But for me, it is almost always very clear one picture will stand out quite elegantly from the rest ... I guess it's just a perfect confluence of the right moment and the perfect light, and in the case of the portraits, there's always an ineffable quality to the expression it is something very fleeting that is only captured in that one image.
Style: You will be exhibiting some of your photos of your children at Reynolds Gallery. Do you find that people today have the same reaction to them as they did when they were first published, or has the general public become more accepting and understanding of this work?
Mann: I think so, yeah. You know, I don't think the world is getting more accepting, because there are several legal cases out there now where absolutely innocent mothers have photographed their children in the bathtub and now they are about to have their children taken away from them. In terms of my work, I think people have come to realize all the various alarms were completely unfounded. Of course, you can understand why some people were alarmed by these photos. Unless you know the situation and you know the children, they do raise some questions.
Style: Your photographs of your family are deeply personal. Do you consider your landscapes to be personal as well?
Mann: Uh-huh. I don't seem to be able to take an impersonal photograph. I guess there are times when I wish I could. My work just seems to be an iconography of desire and passion and beauty. There's nothing passionless about it.
Style: Why did you stop photographing your children?
Mann: I got tired of it. I couldn't think of anything new to say.
Style: How do you choose your subjects?
Mann: I think they choose me. I've never had to think about it.
Style: You use a lot of 19th-century photograph techniques? Why?
Mann: That's a really good question and I wish I had a good pithy answer to it. First, I started doing it because it was the only equipment I had. So I got used to doing it and I liked the way it looked. My first camera was a gift to me from my father. I was just a poor struggling artist so I started using what he gave me. It was ancient, it was an 1870 camera. I just never stopped. I do like the way they make these pictures look.
Style: Do you have a favorite camera?
Mann: Yes, it's a little, very lightweight 8 by 10. I'm working right now with collodion which is one of the original photographic processes. I had to have it custom made collodion cameras are very hard to find, unless it's in an antiques shop or something. It's a really handsome camera.
Style: What are you currently working on?
Mann: I'm in between things right now. I have a half dozen simultaneous avenues that I seem to be exploring, and one of them is these pictures of my husband ... I don't think any photographer female photographer has documented her partner in the way that Steiglitz documented Georgia O'Keefe. ... It just hasn't been done, so I'm going to see why. I'm beginning to have an idea why it hasn't been done. Men just aren't as photogenic. I don't quite understand what it is about women, but they respond better to the camera, I think. ... It's hard to take a picture of a man, there's a certain rigidity to their expressions and their posture, don't you
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