“One of the things my career as an artist might say to young artists is: The things that are close to you are the things you can photograph the best. And unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art.” – Sally Mann

Sally Mann is a photographer. A fine art photographer. A documentary photographer. She has also photographed architecture, landscape and still life. She is famous for her portrayal of her own family.

First work

Sally Mann began her photography career at Washington and Lee University. There, she documented the building of Sydney Lewis Hall which housed the law school. The work led to her first show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. The gallery published a catalog of her work in the show. It became her first book.

“At Twelve …”

Her second book, “At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women” (1988) are photographs of girls on the cusp of growing into women. The girls are the daughters of relatives and friends. In one photo (top left of the opening image) a girl has her hand reluctantly and at arm’s length around the neck of her mother’s boyfriend. She would move no closer despite Mann’s urging. Sometime later, the girl’s mother shot him in the face with a .22. The mother testified at her trial he was “at home partying and harassing my daughter.” Mann said that “the child put it to me somewhat more directly.”

“A jaggy chill of realization” is how she feels when she sees the photograph.

Unlike her later works, “At Twelve” did not have any nudity.

Sally Mann by Annie Leibovitz“Immediate Family”

Mann’s third book “Immediate Family” is a monograph published by Aperture in 1992. The photos are from an exhibition at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in Chicago. This work was touted by The New York Times …

Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world.

Containing 65 duotone prints, many of them of Mann’s three children: Emmett, Jessie and Virginia, who were all under 10 years old. Some show nudity. Some show injuries, Emmett with a nosebleed, Virginia with a swollen eye and Jessie with a cut and stitches.

Mann originally planned to hold publication of “Immediate Family” for 10 years, until her children were older and more likely to understand the photos. When Emmett and Jessie heard of her plan they told her to publish it right away without waiting. The children held veto power over photos they did not wish to appear in the book. Virginia refused a photo of her urinating while Emmett disallowed one of him with socks on his hands.

You know what they’re really worried about? They don’t want to look like dorks. They don’t want to be geeks or dweebs. Nudity doesn’t bother them.


Over 300 prints had been ordered from the book by September 1992. Sales quickly amounted to over $500,000.00.

The New York Times Magazine

The New York Times Magazine ran an in-depth article about Sally Mann her work and her family’s reaction to it. (A link to the article is at the end of this post.)

When a photographer asked them what kind of portrait of their mother should accompany this article, they shouted, “Shoot her naked, shoot her naked.” She did.

There’s more

There is a lot more to Sally Mann’s work than these three books from her early career. She has had 13 books of her photographs published, as well as six exhibition catalogs and numerous museum exhibitions. In the fine art world of photography, it is fair to say that Sally Mann is a significant and controversial force.

“The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann” from the April 16, 2015 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

Read other vignettes of influential photographers in On Photography.