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Sally Mann: Men See Nudity "as a Sign of Weakness"

Mann's photographs of her children on her Virginia farm made her famous—and controversial. Now, she tells the Gothic stories behind her work.
Sally Mann on her Shenandoah farm. Photograph by Liz Liguori

When I reached Sally Mann by phone, she asked me to wait a few minutes before we talked. “I’m in the darkroom,” she explained. This might be expected: If Mann isn’t out shooting in her mobile photography lab—a converted GMC Suburban—she’s holed up on her Virginia farm, making print after print until she’s achieved her signature imperfect perfection.

The resulting body of work is a testament to her breadth as an artist and her abiding ties to the Shenandoah Valley: nostalgic landscapes, unsettling but intoxicating portraits of decomposing bodies, including still lifes of her own dog’s bones.

She admits it’s partly an attempt to overtake the controversy surrounding her 1992 book, Immediate Family, a collection of photographs of her children, who occasionally appeared nude. The book garnered glowing praise and—even before the rise of viral sharing on the internet—vicious condemnation for exposing her kids. (Mann says she plans to release more family photographs, not nudes.)

Hold Still, Mann’s new book about her life and art.

She also wants her legacy to contain more than notoriety. One step in that direction is Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographsout this month—her first foray into published writing, which ranges across her untamed childhood, the inner workings of her 40-year-plus marriage, and, perhaps most relentlessly, her deep relationship with the Virginia countryside.

Mann bounded through our conversation, gamely proclaiming, “You can ask me anything!” and posing her own questions. Here she talks about her home state, her farm and family, and the changing meaning of photography.

After all these years working in photography, how did you decide to write a memoir?

Well, I didn’t. I don’t like memoirs. I think they’re self-serving and people use them to settle scores, and I really tried not to do that. You have to have a really interesting life to justify memoir, and my life has been pretty ho-hum. In fact, when my editor told me he marketed it as a memoir, I said, “Ugghh.”

What did you categorize it as?

I don’t know, “life philosophy” or “artistic meditation” [laughs] or “self help—don’t do it my way!” I just think memoirs are a little . . . hubristic, perhaps.

For decades, you’ve produced only images, which critics then interpreted with their words. How do you feel about counteracting critics now with your words?

In a certain way, that’s another thing I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want Hold Still to be some kind of ringing defense of the family pictures, which are the most contentious body of work. I felt as though I was speaking to younger artists. I didn’t address “How did you get a gallery?” or “What’s the magic answer to success?” But how to make work and the force that’s behind that work—that’s what I’m trying to get to.

You disclose a lot of crazy family stories, about your mother’s parents’ odd marital arrangement with another couple and the strange circumstances of your husband Larry’s parents’ deaths. Why include them, other than the fact that they are good stories?

Well, what else is there? I guess it’s because they’re formative as well as informative. Certainly my mother’s experience formed her personality, which in turn formed mine to a large extent. And the murder/suicide of Larry’s parents. I don’t know, maybe it’s gratuitous to tell that story, but the whole experience with his parents, who so hated me and destroyed themselves—I really believe that their hatred of our marriage was partially behind Larry’s mother’s decision [to kill his father and then herself] and unhappiness. I think it’s relevant to the story of how my marriage has stayed together for 45 years. I thought all those stories somehow wove together to form some kind of picture of how a life coheres.

An image from Mann’s limited-edition 2005 book, “Deep South.” Photograph by Sally Mann

The South has informed almost every inch of who you are and what you do, particularly Rockbridge County, Virginia, where you live. What is it you see there?

It’s the extraordinary physical beauty. There’s something unique about this county, and anyone who lives here knows it. There’s a lot of smart people and the interesting characters, from the Scotch-Irish who settled here ages ago—mountain people, a lot of them. It’s just a wonderful place. Who could fail to be completely devoted to it? I don’t even leave this farm for my groceries [laughs]. Larry clocked it at 5½ weeks that I never left the farm. He does the grocery shopping. He gets the mail. I just don’t leave. Why leave?

The farm seems to be a set of parameters that bring out your best work—like Emily Dickinson and the Homestead, as opposed to an artist like Walt Whitman, whose work was deeply concerned with human experiences out in the world.

I’ve got one body of work that I think is going to be fairly radical. I’ve been shooting for years and years. It’s all been taken right here on the farm.

Can you describe it?

It’s pictures of my husband. I call it “Marital Trust.” It’s about a marriage. They’re very intimate, many of them. I’m chary of letting them out. So that’s my “Body Electric” that I’ve made in my little Dickinsonian parlor. I think it’s kind of possible to be Whitmanesque in a Dickinsonian setting.

You write that photographing your husband naked put you in “the thinly populated group of women who have looked unflinchingly at men.” Do you see this as a feminist act?

Yeah, I do! I’m not an ardent feminist—well, maybe I am an ardent feminist. I just roll my eyes at the way women are constantly used and how sensitive men are about photographs of themselves. They won’t allow it.

Why do you think that is?

Because they’ve been in control for millennia. They probably see it as a sign of weakness, of vulnerability. Very few males have the confidence to appear vulnerable.

In what you’re doing, though, your husband implicitly trusts you, which isn’t necessarily the condition under which women are photographed. Do you see a need for more women to photograph male nudes in that way?

I don’t know that there’s a burning need for that. I just think society needs to acknowledge the way we use women and their bodies. I find it offensive, in some cases. I find it predictable—I guess half-naked men aren’t gonna sell things. So much nudity is for marketing, and the pictures I’m making aren’t salable.

It seems you’ll forever be known as the photographer who took naked photos of her children. It’s like the first thing on your Wikipedia page. Are you trying to outrun that legacy?

Oh, yeah—I’m sprinting. It’s the first . . . who does my Wikipedia page?

Anybody can do it.

Oh, really? Anyway, the only way I can outrun it is to amass such a significant body of other work that the pictures of the children just become part of a bigger body of work.

A 1971 portrait of a young woman from Mann’s Dream Sequence series. Photograph by Sally Mann

That work presaged a current debate about how much we should post about our kids on the internet. What you did was not remotely in that vein, but I’m curious: Do you fear the internet has become a place where children aren’t safe?

I don’t know that I have an opinion about that, just because I don’t know what’s on the internet. When I was doing those pictures, I knew the definition of the word “pedophilia,” but it wasn’t something I really thought about. I’d never seen it. That stuff is all out there now. It turns out that every little milquetoast man is lusting after children.

Has that changed the way you feel about the family pictures? If you Google your name, they’re everywhere.

From an intellectual-property standpoint, it pisses me off that they’re so wildly copyright-infringed. But no, I don’t see them in the way you’re implying. There’s so much else out there for pedophiles. It only bothers me that the artist now has so little control over her work.

The online magazine Slate called 2014 the Year of Outrage, saying that’s basically our default mode. As someone who’s been at the center of these outrage storms, do you think this indignation is a necessary evil? Or are we expending energy in the wrong direction?

Don’t you think it’s media-fueled? I think the media is a fear-mongering operation. They love to rile their viewership up or to scare them. I don’t think that’s inapplicable to what happened to me. I think those pictures scared certain people. I’m all in favor of outrage. I’m all for challenging assumptions. But it can’t be gratuitous outrage.

You say in Hold Still that photography robs us of memory, that the photo itself becomes the memory. You write, “Sometimes I think the only memories I have are those that I’ve created around photographs of me as a child.” Do you ever worry that we’ll lose our ability to remember because we spend so much time trying to capture instead of trying to experience?

I don’t worry exactly—that’s their problem, not mine. But yeah, I think that’s going to be part of the unintended consequences of all this imagery. People are going to forget to look and feel and sense and actually see. But one of my resolutions for my future is, believe it or not, to take more snapshots. I don’t usually think like that. I stand with my mouth agape looking at the sunset—it would never occur to me to take a picture. I take a picture when I want to say something, not when I want to save something.

Hillary Kelly is a freelance writer in Washington.

This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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Hillary writes about interiors, real estate, arts, and culture. She is the former digital media editor of The New Republic, and her work has also been published in Glamour, The New York Times Book Review, and The Washington Post, among others. You can follow her on Instagram @hillarylouisekelly or on Pinterest @hlkelly.