On Sally Mann

The piece below was written by Keavy-Handley Byrne in our Photographs and Photobooks Department. 

Sally Mann grew up in rural Virginia, with an influential father who, as an amateur photographer himself,  instilled in her a desire to make important, provocative art. From the outset, Mann saw herself as an iconoclast. She proposed to her husband, Larry, at Bennington College, which they both attended. They married in 1970, when Mann was nineteen, and, after she had finished her undergraduate studies, the couple returned to her childhood home of Rockbridge County, Virginia, and had their first child, Emmett, in 1979. 

Lot 341: Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, silver print, 1989. Estimate $100,000 to $150,000. 

Mann pursued both photography and writing, completing her masters degree in creative writing in 1975, but also working as the photographer for nearby Washington & Lee University. Her personal work focused on subjects ranging from the historic architecture in her hometown of Lexington, to carefully casual portraits for a monograph titled At Twelve, of girls on the cusp of puberty. Her first solo exhibition, comprised of surrealistic images of the construction of the law building at Washington & Lee, was held at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in late 1977. 

Mann began photographing her family in 1984, against her favored backdrop: the mythic, lyrical landscape of the American South. Her children, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, were all under the age of ten. After what she describes as a very free childhood, she endeavored to raise her children in the same way, unencumbered by more traditional ideas how children should engage in play together. Mann recalls somewhat wryly in her memoir, Hold Still, that her own mother had a difficult time getting her to wear a stitch of clothing until she was of school age, and her children were nude much of the time, as well. 

Lot 342: Sally Mann, The Way I Found the Baby, silver print, 1987. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000. 

Her children have been described as 'collaborators' by Richard B. Woodward, in his 1992 profile on Mann in the New York Times Magazine; her older daughter, Jessie, describes pointing out settings or scenes that the children recognize as attractive to Mann. Factual documentary and contrived fiction were woven together seamlessly, much like children creating fairytale woods from thin clumps of trees, by the collaboration between the children and their mother.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable photographs of the 20th Century, Mann's Candy Cigarette continues to be the subject of critical and academic celebration and scrutiny, more than two decades after it was first exhibited as part of Mann's Immediate Family exhibition at Edwynn Houk Gallery in 1990.

Woodward writes: "For years, Sally Mann labored in rural obscurity, worried that her kinds of photographs would never find favor in the art world. Against the hard-edged documentarians of the 70's and the media-haunted generation of the 80's, her lush, brooding scenarios looked out of place. Her last solo show in New York was at the now defunct Marcuse Pfeiffer Gallery, in 1988." 

In Candy Cigarette [above],Mann's middle child, Jessie, holds perfectly still, with an expression that vacillates between defiant and demure. As much as she is caught in the unflinching gaze of the camera, so is the viewer trapped in her practiced, coy stare. The haziness of the surrounding activity, enhanced by Mann's skillful, lush printing practice, lends itself to the feeling of a childhood memory, where the sharpest details lie in a simple glance or a gesture. Jessie's pristine white dress is starkly contrasted with the deep, dark tones of the background; the vignetting and short field of focus in Mann's images recall the large-format photography of years prior, without becoming, as Woodward says, "another cool topographer."

The complexities of adolescence, of self-expression, and of innocence are laid bare in Mann's photograph. The subject appears comfortable, at ease with her surroundings, while also engaging in the performance of adulthood -- "vamping," as Mann describes it in her recent memoir -- discovering her own identity through play-acting. 

Lot 343: Sally Mann, a photo flipbook to commemorate the birth of her son, Emmett Munger Mann, 1979. Estimate $200 to $300. 

More information on the works in this sale can be found here, or check out the complete catalogue

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