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Lecture Coverage

Transcending Photography

Sally Mann on landscape, child pornography, and photographic truth

by Britany Salsbury

Sally Mann’s photographs, idyllic depictions of both her children and the Southern landscape, are created on an enlarger that is over sixty years old and held together by duct tape. Mann was more than willing to share this and other trade secrets with the sizable crowd that gathered to hear her speak about her work. “It’s like snake handling,” she said, describing her practice, “there’s potential for both danger and transcendence.”

She met with some of the former in the photographs she is best known for, which depict her young children taken at a family vacation home in the heart of Appalachia. Because of Mann’s interest in capturing them in a “feral and uninformed stage,” the children were often naked, a fact targeted by cultural conservatives who labeled the works child pornography. Because of the intimate relationship she shared with her family, and the comfort they found in the landscape of their summer home, it did not occur to her that these images would stir such controversy. “I look at them differently now,” she says, “I can see why people would have been upset.”

Eventually, Mann turned from her children as subjects and began to focus on landscape. “The figures grew smaller as the landscape took over,” she described. When asked by an audience member if she would ever consider photographing the landscape and life of cities, Mann responded that she would “never say no to anything.” Her focus, however, remains on timelessness—on places and people that are transcendentally permanent.

When asked about the idea of photographic truth, a concept central to such practice, Mann expressed uncertainty. “I don’t trust pictures,” she stated. “Photographic truth may be an oxymoron.” She cited the experience of looking at a contact sheet for Diane Arbus’s “Child With Toy Hand-Grenade In Central Park” (1962). “In every other photo he looks normal and in that one part of a second he looks bizarre.” This privileging of an extraordinary millisecond can, perhaps, be connected to Mann’s photographic practice, and her desire to give permanence to places and people that are momentarily transcendent. “Each project has its own revelatory aspect,” she ultimately asserted, “if you base your career on chances to open yourself up.”