Sally Mann

Research Point

Sally Mann is an American photographer, famous for her black and white large frame photographs where she explores things close to her, including her own children and landscapes depicting death and decay.

Her collection of images of young girls “At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women”  record the emotional confusions and development of her subjects at that age.  All images are  shots of the young women.  This book published in 1988 attracted critics who claimed they were pornographic.  However, this was mild criticism compared to the controversy that subsequent publications “Immediate Family” (1992) and “Still Time” (1994)  attracted, which included shots of her own children and the beginning of her exploration into death, injury, sexuality and decay.

Mann claims that she tried to portray childhood innocence through the eyes of a mother and in an interview with SuburbX she states that her images cannot be described as sentimental but are “very, very romantic and very tough”.  There is little doubt that her style of photography can be disturbing.

In the SuburbX interview Jiang Rong (interviewer), asks if there is a link between  photography and poetry, which Mann studied at university. Her reply is interesting when she says that some photographs are linked, as they condense information while others are like “Ezra Pound”.  In fact there are several parallels between photography and poetry in the interview, with references to Emily Dickinson and Yeats as well as Pound.

I am assuming that by her reply Mann means Pound’s development and use of Imagism, which is described as the use of clear, precise, and sharp language producing an economy of language in his poems.  Is that what Mann is trying to achieve in her photography?  There seems to be evidence of this type of Imagism in the Body Farm collection.  Where there is no need to explain the image further than what is presented as perhaps a “succession or creative moments”, words sometimes used to describe Imagism



Sally Mann, 2000-2001 (accessed 20.06.16)

All of Mann’s photography has a sense of the mysterious and although in the interview, she states that she is “peeling back the layers to reveal the truth” she also says of her Immediate Family images that they “tell truths, but truths ‘told slant’, an Emily Dickinson parallel (Accessed 12th January 2017).   Mann also claims not to seek the crisp and clear image that most photographers are doing but is more interested in creating the mysterious and whimsical quality to her images.

Mann’s range of subjects is diverse ranging from the children and family shots, some documenting her husband’s muscular dystrophy decline, battlefields and killing fields, through to the mystical capture of the land in Southern Landscapes.  Whatever the subject, the use of light is paramount in her images.  It is obvious that the aim of all of this photography is not to capture crisp and sharp images but to create strange and unpredictable images.

I find some of Mann’s photographs deeply disturbing and thought provoking. The parallel between Imagism and photography may account for why I have struggled with the message that Mann is trying to get over.





Exercise 4.1

“Set your camera to any of the auto or semi-auto modes. Photograph a dark tone (such as a black jacket), a mid-tone (the inside of a cereal packet traditionally makes a useful ‘grey card’) and a light tone (such as a sheet of white paper), making sure that the tone fills the viewfinder frame (it’s not necessary to focus). Add the shots to your learning log with quick sketches of the histograms and your observations.”

For this exercise I used A4 black and white cards and the inside of a cereal box.  Unfortunately, the cereal box had a number of creases in it which can be seen in the images.  However, I decided that this did not detract from the aim of the exercise and I would still be able to demonstrate  the exposures for each shot.

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The three above images were taken using a Canon 5D Mk 3 on semi-automatic using Aperture priority.  I originally set my camera to fully automatic mode and the camera could not focus which confused me at first.  I posted a query onto the OCA blog as to why this should be and then on reflection realised that it was because there were not enough tones in the shots to help the camera focus.  I received a number of helpful replies which confirmed this so I first of all took the auto focus off and then set the camera to Aperture priority.

As predicted and described in the course text the camera exposed for all three cards in the mid tone.  This is described in the histograms and the similarity of tone in each of the images.

“Set your camera to manual mode. Now you can see your light meter! The midtone exposure is indicated by the ‘0’ on the meter scale with darker or lighter exposures as – or + on either side. Repeat the exercise in manual mode, this time adjusting either your aperture or shutter to place the dark, mid and light tones at their correct positions on the histogram. The light and dark tones shouldn’t fall off either the left or right side of the graph. Add the shots to your learning log with sketches of their histograms and your observations.”

Grey cereal box card

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The creases on the cereal box are clear in these images.  However, the histogram shows that the shutter speed of 1.3 seconds is probably the better exposure of the two shots.


White Card

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These two images are both taken with the same aperture and ISO  but with a longer exposure of 6secs in the first image compared to 1.6 secs in the second.  Although the histogram is well to the right in the longer exposure there is no loss of detail and the highlights are not blown out producing a closer replica to the white card than the second image.  The shorter exposure although not on 0 of the light meter is clearly beginning to move towards the mid-tone.

Black Card

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With the black card I opened up the aperture to it’s widest setting and increased the ISO to 400.  Although not quite so clear on this resolution, in light room the 1/8 sec exposure looks more grey than the longer exposure. As seen in the images of the white card the histogram is close to the edge but there appears to be no loss of detail and the darks are not blown out.