Every so often, a photographer will find himself embroiled in scandal because of the sensitivity of his chosen subject. Photographers like W. Eugene Smith and Lewis Hine experience some criticism for their photographs many decades ago, but these days it seems the most innocent subjects can be the most controversial. When portrait photographer Sally Mann began documenting the beauty of her own family, she found herself in the middle of a heated debate on what exactly passes for natural and indecent in the medium. (WARNING: This post contains NUDITY).
Sally Mann first expressed her interest in photography as a high school student at The Putney School, and later took up creative writing in her college and postgraduate years. On her first job as a photographer, she made surrealist landscape images of an construction project at Washington and Lee University. Her photographs earned her her first exhibition, and was her first step into becoming more well-known in the art world.
Her second project in 1988 was what earned her a controversial name in the industry; At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women is a collection of images which "capture the confusing emotions and developing identities of adolescent girls", and led to some discussion about sexuality and children. Still, the images were tame compared to Mann's most famous work.
In 1992, Mann published Immediate Family, a collection of black-and-white images which featured her three children: Emmet, Jessie and Virginia, all of them under the age of 10 and all of them mostly in the nude. Mann wanted to capture the childhood of her young ones through the eyes of a mother, and she did it through a gothic narrative which bared everything from smoking candy cigarettes on the porch to skinny dipping in the Virginia heat.
Many critics however lashed at the controversial photographs, branding them as child pornography and accusing Mann of being an irresponsible parent. The suggestive nature of the images and their subjects led to the collection being cast along the thin line of intimacy and indecency.
After her Immediate Family project, Mann delved into other areas, going into landscapes with her images of Louisiana and Mississippi, and then exploring the ideas of death and decay by photographing decomposing bodies at a "body farm". Throughout all of these projects, Mann used her century-old 8 x 10 bellows view camera and wet plate glass negatives which she had been accustomed to using since her first foray into photography in her high school years.
Throughout the years, Mann has maintained her position of staunch honesty despite the allegations of eroticism and exploitation. While much some of her fame is derived from the controversial nature of her nude photography work, there is no question that, peeling away the years of unending debate, her photographs are simply beautiful.
This is Sally Mann's official website where there are more examples of the beauty of family, landscapes and death. Many of her publications are still available, among them are Immediate Family, What Remains and At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women.