Critical Review – Sally Mann

Immoral or Maternal?

Jessie, Emmett and Virginia - immediate family

Sally Mann is one of photography’s most acclaimed artist’s, and through her work of portraiture has captured beautiful, mystical and provoking images. Her series ‘Immediate family’, released in 1989, caused much controversy over the content of that series. The images contained snapshots of her children living out their lives. Yet these images sometimes depicted bloody, sometimes dirty and sometimes nude scenes, which raised alarm in the photography world, which in turn made everyone think of the works as pedophiliac. Some critics agreed and some disagreed, in this review I will look into both sides of the argument, and come to a conclusion.

The images are dark, leaving lots to the imagination, however what is clear is her use, or exploitation, of her children. The focus is clearly on them, and with this comes things that arguably shouldn’t be seen by people outside of the family. The camera doesn’t shy away from Emmett’s bloody nose, or Virginia when she wets the bed, instead it captures it, and in doing so almost is saying something about Sally Mann as a mother. These actions or happenings are private ‘functions’ that every mother and father see, however a mother that shows this to the world could be seen as not brave, but immoral. Pat Robinson, a critic and writer, stated “Selling photographs of children naked for profit is immoral”, which is quite true isn’t it?! Arguably Mann is the mother of these children, and so in turn can choose what is right for them, however showing a child at a low point as these images do surely is immoral.

In an interview with Jessie Mann she states “It seems like she is overwhelmed with this feeling of love and she doesn’t know what to do with it, so she photographs it”. This is very confusing, although many of the images with the immediate family series are staged, in a situation where one’s child has a bloody nose, the first thing you would do wouldn’t be to grab one’s camera and photograph it. Surely if this is Sally Mann’s idea of love, she is very mistaken to what love is, and how she goes about showing this love and care for her children.


Emmett's Bloody Nose - immediate family

Although these idea’s are strong and very powerful, and thought by many parent’s, art critics and so forth, the images themselves do hold a ‘loving feel’, a ‘maternal feel’. The images do reflect those that lie in one of our family photo albums tucked away on our top shelf. Its the way in which the photo’s are taken which imply so much more. For instance, the use of black and white immediately gives your imagination fuel to over-think things, the graininess of the image adds more mystery to this. However under all of these techniques and styles Sally Mann uses, the photo’s are in fact images of her children, a part of her, people that she has nurtured and watched grow up, and whom she loves. These facts are clear in her images, although on the surface some look quite distasteful, after reading behind the initial visuals the relationship between Sally and her children is visible. They love to be photographed and play up to the camera, as all children do.

“We enjoyed being photographed. It gave us a sense of                                             beauty”

Although it was the immediate family series that caught the negative attention of so many, these weren’t the only images of children Sally Mann has taken, her at 12 series looks at young girls in their most formative years. Yet nothing was mentioned about these, agreed they don’t depict nearly the same kind of images in immediate family, but then surely looking at Sally Mann’s work as a whole shows us that she isn’t immoral, or doesn’t understand the boundaries that she is allowed to explore within, instead it shows a photographer who is a loving mother who in turn is in love with photography and wishes to explore the possibilities of it.

Juliet in the Chair - At 12

Sally Mann’s immediate family series will always provoke argument, and everyone will hold conflicting ideas on the images, however I believe Mann to be a good mother. The children were highly involved with the creative process which occurred and from the interview and research I have done, it is clear to me, that they enjoyed themselves. I believe this was a project between a mother and her children, and due to the process being placed into the limelight with its success, received raised eyebrows because of the confident nature of the project. I have looked at these photographs for ten weeks, and now I look through and I see it as a family album, yes the images are extreme but they still hold a tenderness that isn’t achieved in any of Sally Mann’s other works. I believe the images are maternal, and if people disagree then that is acceptable, but over this research process I have become quite strong in my thoughts on the subject. The argument will never be concluded as with new people comes new idea’s.

Popsicle drops - immediate family

About charliesarsfieldcmp

Im 19, and i want to be interesting, im currently studying contemporary media at westminster and will become a scriptwriter.
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