Another awesome month on the Photo Book Club thanks to those who contributed and shared their own thoughts on Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’. I really enjoyed taking the time to get re-aquanted with this book, and found new themes and new images that resonated more than before.
My thanks to Elinor for offering these words on ‘Immediate Family’:
I saw ‘Immediate family’ when I was a student in Jerusalem and I was immediately drawn to this body of work. The images were so beautiful, magical, intense and complex…and even dark at times, as childhood can often be. This landscape was like nothing I have seen before, being born and raised in Israel.
I love Sally Mann’s work, she is a brave and original artist.
Mann’s images in ‘Immediate Family’ show her subjects in a state of content, content with their surroundings and with the omni-presence of the camera. Her family seem to move slowly through life and through the book we hold in our hands, despite the titles incorporating ages and dates, there is a sense of timelessness and fantasy to the narrative.
In some of the images this timeless quality transforms into more of a stillness, her children moving from subjects of a documentary to still life’s in a collection. It becomes apparent that just as Mann is aware of the joys and trivialities of life, she is equally intrigued and conscious of our fragile mortality. Since ‘Immediate Family’ she has gone on to document her husband Larry’s deteriorating physical health as a result of muscular dystrophy as well as the University of Kentucky’s ‘Body Farm‘, but even here in the serene Virginia landscape there is evidence of Mann’s curiosity. In an article from the Guardian in 2012, Blake Morrison commented that:
In truth, though, Mann’s lively obsession with death – her capacity to be unsqueamish about it while seeing its thumbprint everywhere – originated way back in early childhood. Her father was a country doctor who had seen his share of death and who liked to say there were only three subjects for art: sex, death and whimsy. He was himself an artist in his spare time, and his whimsical creations included a man with three penises (Portnoy’s Triple Complaint) carved from a tree trunk. It was an unconventional, rural childhood, middle class but bohemian: no church, no country club, no television. Mann describes herself as a “feral child”, running naked with dogs or riding her horse with only a string through its mouth.
Mann presents us with the role of death in country life through images such as ’squirrel season’ and ’Jessie and the dear’, but these only solidify the nomadic theme we are presented with throughout the entirety of the book. What I found more interesting were the images that seemed to exude a feeling of death, or in some case more of a permanent stillness.
Here in ’Dirty Jessie’ we are presented with a clearly live Jessie but whose legs are positioned at such an uncomfortable angle that to make connections with a fall and broken limbs is one that many make on first seeing the scene. The grass spreading away from the body with a scattering of leaves contributes to the notion of impact.
In ’Flour Paste’ it is hard not to conjure up thoughts of death. The flour past on young, sleight legs gives the appearance of a much older subject, of frailty and ultimately when we consider the framing, pairing with ’Squirrel Season’ and an ankle bracelet that brings to mind a body tag, death.
Likewise in ’Jessie’s Cut’, the blood, stitches, closed eyes and lack of any other human presence create a sense of unease.
These images carry a real potency and add weight to the complete series of images Mann presents us with, and to me, it offers another strand to the book that I dont entirely understand – I love that.
“I have always loved her art and more so since being a mum.
I’m not photographic art critic and my words here are from the heart, only.
In a way I am torn about how I felt watching the film and Sally Mann’s unwavering vision, her dedication and the fact that she is seemingly consumed by photography. I would love the ability to be that focussed and am envious that she has a husband and family that are so supportive of her ‘work’ even though her work or art has always involved them.
I feel for the children, too. When I am consumed with my photography I would love to follow that train of thought or action to completion but I cannot because of family demands. Im not saying that Mann’s actions are selfish but I feel that she is fortunate to have the unerring support of her family. I’m guessing that her work supports them very well and so they appreciate that if she may be at times emotionally unavailable when working they appreciate that what she does pays the bills.
I don’t think that her being so consumed doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love her kids. She is an artist and to work efficiently she needs to be in the right head space to work, though at times it is a the expense of family time. I met Trente Parke in 2003 and he was at that time very similar, saying that almost his every thought was of photography and he is an amazingly talented and successful photographer, too. In think it goes with the territory.
I did note that her son spoke about ‘Sally Mann’ not ‘mum’, but what to make of that I cannot answer.
Some people may see as what she has done as exploitative but I don’t. As a mum to a young boy I am fortunate of our close relationship that he allows me in and doesn’t mind being the object of my focus. To me their lives growing up being part of their mother’s vision was amazing. They were willing participants and I love the fact that many of the images they appear naked. Some of their portraits are so direct and raw, something only maybe possible if it’s your mother photographing you.
However, I feel it’s always good to question any portrait and look deeper. Some of the childrens’ looks in their portraits could be deemed as affected. Or was it that they had got to the point after numerous ‘takes’ that they were actually past that point where they were fully consenting. Who knows?
Mann’s images, art and consuming passion for photography make her an icon of our time and we need to thank her family for that, too.”
One of the things I love about photobooks is that they can stay on your shelf and change over time so much so, that two readings of the same book can cause completely different reactions.
Lately I have found myself drawn back to books that work with the physical, natural landscape, a few of my favourites at the moment being Paula McCartney’s ‘Bird Watching‘ and Bernard Fuchs’ ‘Roads and Paths‘.
And so perhaps it is no surprise that in picking up ‘Immediate Family’ again for this month, one of the themes that resonated unlike before was the physical landscape and serene beauty of this idyllic setting. As a town-dwelling citizen I see (naively) only the ideals of this rural setting, the simple pleasure of collecting yard eggs and resting by the water.
Mann’s images really bring home this idea of living alongside the landscape when we see Jessie’s wild hair tangled up and becoming part of the foliage she stands in front of. Or where Emmet stands tall in the black water, only creating the slightest of alteration to the flow. This Virgina idyll also puts me in mind of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ from which I have lifted a few quotes alongside Mann’s images.
“In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society.“
“As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white-pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air…”
“Now that the cars are gone by and all the restless world with them, and the fishes in the pond no longer feel their rumbling, I am more alone than ever. For the rest of the afternoon, perhaps, my meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway.”
“While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house today is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too.”
“On land only the grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind. I see where the breeze dashes accros it by the streaks or flakes of light. It is remarkable that we can look down on its surface. We shall, perhaps, look down thus on the surface of air at length, and mark where a still subtler spirit sweeps over it.”
Firstly, as this book is easily available at a good price in a re-edition, I will be not be creating a video for the book in it’s entirety. And so you can either look to purchase the book here (or here for US), or look at what Mann features on her own website. It is by no means a substitute for the book but it does give a taste for the work and as often as possible I will feature other images also.
3. The Smithsonian magazine writes about Mann’s images of her family here.
4. And… even though it was featured in the earlier posts, it is most certainly a must watch in relation to this specific book: This video offers a great insight int Mann’s mind, and process as well as hearing from her children about their mothers image making and use of them as subjects.
Thanks to Daniel Milnor who runs the always-worth-a-bookmark blog ‘Smogranch’ over here for offering this personal reflection on Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’. If you would like to add your own reflection, please do so in the comments below or by emailing email@example.com
I have very distinct feelings about this book because I discovered “Immediate Family” in the very early stages of my decision to become a photographer. I was NOT of the “art” mind at the time because the photography that gave me reason to pursue this endeavor was the photography of the Vietnam War. I found Larry Burroughs and felt a way I’d never felt before. I would go through old copies of News Photographer Magazine. I found “Deeds of War” by Nachtwey and again felt a way I’d never felt before. And then I found “Immediate Family,” and once again I felt something I’d never felt before but in a different way.
I’m not sure you can find two more different genres than war photography and what Sally Mann was doing, but I felt like they were both putting out similar emotion. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what to think when I found Sally Mann’s work. It froze me in my tracks. Since that time, all those years ago, I think her work had more of an impact on me than the work of the photographers in the photojournalism world, and I am still doing documentary work today. Years ago i was asked to do a portrait of my neighbor’s kids and I said “no.” The neighbor brought her kids over anyway and for the following seven years I photographed kids full time.
I never tried to copy Sally Mann but I surely had her emotional impact in mind every time I put my camera to my eye. She also made me realize I have a responsibility when it comes to my own family. I’m the guy. I’m the photographer in the family. If I don’t document my family there will simply be no record of them. When you walk in my house, the first picture you see is not an image from my 20+ years of doing documentary work. The first image you see is a 40×40 black and white portrait of my 8-year-old nephew. And on a sidenote….years ago, when I worked for Kodak, my phone rang and the voice on the other side said, “Hi Dan, this is Sally Mann.” Having the kind of friends I do, ones that would try to trick me any chance they had, I ALMOST hung up on her. Turns out it was the “real” Sally Mann. I’ve lived in LA many years, have never been starstruck by anyone but in this case I was almost speechless. In my office I have a portrait of Sally Mann, made by my New Mexico photographer and friend Karen Kuehn. I keep it there as a reminder to never forgot what this pursuit of photography really means. So, in short, if you don’t have this book…..get it.
As we look at Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’ this month it is worth acknowledging the artist beyond this single publication. And so below are some useful links and resources to find out a little more about one of America’s most important female artists. You can also see the links below for other publications by Mann.
We will feature another ‘food for thought’ post shortly looking more closely at resources linked to ‘Immediate Family’.
2.In this interview from American Suburb X, Sally Mann speaks with Steven Cantor (director of ‘What Remains’) about the process of making the documentary, and in particular about the relationships between Mann and her children.
3. This next video is not nearly as in depth as ‘What Remains’ but it still offers a great insight int Mann’s mind, and process as well as hearing from her children about their mothers image making and use of them as subjects.
If you fancy getting involved and sharing your thoughts on the book then you can do so in the comments section below or in email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Title Immediate Family
Author Sally Mann
Publisher Aperture 1992
“Mann’s subjects are her small children (a boy, a girl, and a new baby), often shot when they’re sick or hurt or just naked. Nosebleeds, cuts, hives, chicken pox, swollen eyes, vomiting—the usual trials of childhood—can be alarmingly beautiful, thrillingly sensual moments in Mann’s portrait album. Her ambivalence about motherhood—her delight and despair—pushes Mann to delve deeper into the steaming mess of family life than most of us are willing to go. What she comes up with is astonishing.”
—Vince Aletti, The Village Voice
“Immediate Family, which was published in 1990, must be counted as one of the great photograph books of our time. It is a singularly powerful evocation of childhood from within and without…”
—Luc Sante, The New Republic