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Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings
Sally Mann, “Bloody Nose” (c 1991). Gelatin silver print, 49.5 × 49.5 cm (19 1/2 × 19 1/2 in.)Collection of Sally Mann

Unpicking the controversy behind Sally Mann’s iconic photos of her children

We reflect on the images that resulted in the police being called on the artist and examine what they meant

In the spring of 1992, the artist Sally Mann had a solo exhibition at Houk Friedman Gallery, a small place in New York. Her three kids, Emmett, 12, Jessie, 10, and Virginia, 7, ran around the space, delighting the gallery goers. They were also the subjects of these artworks, portrayed bruised, dancing, and running nude in the American South’s wild landscape. Mann had spent years making a living as a local photographer in Lexington, Virginia, outside the art centres like New York. But her art of extraordinary depictions of everyday life would soon gain national attention with the publication of her book, Immediate Family, and later spark the outrage of preachers, politicians and pundits.

“I never separated myself as an artist and a mother,” Mann told the New York Times. The power of a Sally Mann photograph comes from making public what is normally private. Mann never set out to provoke or shock anyone, her wide-ranging subjects such as young children on the verge of adolescence, reckoning with her own position as a white southern, decaying bodies, and landscapes imbued with an ethereal quality, have more to do with the broad themes of photography and the specificity of her own life growing up in the American South.

“I never separated myself as an artist and a mother” – Sally Mann (to the New York Times)

“Out of the 65 photos in the book, only 13 show the children naked,” Mann told the Guardian, looking back on this time. “There was no internet in those days. I'd never seen child pornography. It wasn't in people's consciousness. Showing my children's bodies didn't seem unusual to me. Exploitation was the farthest thing from my mind.” Her prominence came just a little time after US Senators denounced artist Andres Serrano submerging a crucifix in a jar of piss, and when Robert Mapplethorpe had an exhibition of his powerful portrayals of gay life cancelled. Mann’s work faced a similar backlash. The Wall Street Journal put black bars over four-year-old Virginia’s eyes, breasts, and genitals. Artforum refused to publish a picture of a nude Jessie swinging on a hay hook. And an angry review from The San Diego Tribune ran the headline, “It May Be Art, but What About the Kids?”

Censorship doesn't take things away or hide them, instead, it exposes cultural taboos and difficult questions. When the Wall Street Journal censored images of Mann’s daughter, she was shocked. “It felt like a mutilation, not only of the image but also of Virginia herself and of her innocence.” A broadcast evangelist, the Rev. Vic Eliason, also campaigned against her, rallying his supporters and even the police. “He got the police and the D.A. to come down and investigate the show (at the Milwaukee Art Museum),” Mann told the New York Times. “It was scary because he talked about saving my children from me. It fizzled out. But it’s the kind of thing that I’m afraid of.” At another time, Mann asked the federal prosecutor in Roanoke, Va., for legal advice about her travelling exhibition, of which he said no fewer than eight pictures could subject her to arrest.

Making something public that is expected to be private runs into a lot of ethical issues, which Mann has wrangled with throughout her career. When debating about sharing the images of her children, she got a psychologist involved to speak with them and see if they fully understood what this artwork meant. When she photographed decaying bodies in a forensic anthropology facility (known as the ‘body farm’), she was concerned about if the now-deceased had signed release forms, later deciding to donate her body to these research facilities also.

She was born in and spent most of her life in Lexington, a small town in rural Virginia. “I think the South depends on its eccentrics,” she said when interview by the New York Times in 1992. “It loves them, and it rewards them in lots of ways. This community allows itself to be scandalised by me and by my work, but they love it. What else would they do if it wasn’t for me? I take being iconoclastic sort of seriously. It’s my role here.” So much of Mann’s artistic life has been defined by the outrage from other people, specifically of the images about her children. But a new, major exhibition of her work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and an accompanying book, hope to shift this focus towards a broader look at her work, especially her landscape photography.

“Censorship doesn't take things away or hide them, instead, it exposes cultural taboos and difficult questions”

Mann’s landscapes are less sensational than the images of her children, but they speak to the same impulses that drive her – a direct yet extraordinary look at everyday life, and a unique voice shaped by life in the American South. Mann’s distinctive photography comes from unusual means, taking the heavy-duty equipment and processes of the 19th Century and uses them to make images that feel fresh, real, and vibrant today. When she sets up her large-format view camera to take an image over several hours in a swamp in the middle of Virginia, the beauty comes from the sustained attention, the sense of a prolonged care, attention, and curiosity. Somehow, Mann overcomes the clichés of historic churches, dense forests, and rolling hills to make a statement about the way a place shapes the people there, under layers of history and within the precise characteristics of the landscape. Her process points to 19th Century photography, but Mann’s art moves beyond the style and effects that bring so much historical baggage to create something very honest, curious and yet otherworldly.

Sally Mann won’t be the last artist to deal with the ethics of photography, to take images of children, to confront the legacy of slavery, or explore the natural beauty of the American South – but through her art she explored when the private meets the public sphere before the internet, Facebook, and the rest, and made it a part of our everyday. For today’s generation of photographers representing untold stories and working with difficult subjects, Mann reminds us about the blurring lines between public and private, the central role of art in the culture wars, and how in 2018 these questions remain fresh, new and, still, deeply difficult.

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings runs March 4 – May 28, 2018 at Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art. The book is published by Abrams & Chronicle and is available here