Artist Feature: Beyond the Controversy of Sally Mann

I’ve finally read Sally Mann’s 2015 book Hold Still, a personal and family memoir of the acclaimed artist’s life and ancestral influences.

Hold Still Sally Mann book cover

Mann is best known for the controversial photographs of her own children, particularly those that feature them in nude, sometimes sensual poses. Among other things, Hold Still gives us an inside look at the controversy through Mann’s eyes and its negative effects on her family. Interestingly, it was the controversy itself and others’ censorship of Mann’s photos that caused confusion and discomfort for her children.


By now the controversy is over and done with, but sadly it remains the primary cause of Mann’s fame. But naturally, there’s much more the general public doesn’t know about this artist.


Dead Bodies

Sally Mann’s photos alternate between nostalgic, Southern landscapes and the gritty, uncomfortable facets of life. One of the most shocking chapters in her novel is the body farm – I was previously unfamiliar with this body of work – in which Mann visits a site that allows dead bodies to decompose naturally outdoors. For study, of course, and apparently art.

Sally Mann Body Farm series
Body Farm series, 2000-2001

I was eating lunch while reading this chapter and promptly set my sandwich aside. While I’m not especially squeamish, the reality of this chapter got to me. Mann describes two men who bring their friend’s dead body to the farm, honoring his last wish. As the scene unfolds with Mann’s commentary, we see the stark contrast between a “normal” reaction to the dead, the two friends sobbing as they carry the fresh body to its designated spot, and Mann’s detached response, as a scientist/artist who has spent the last few days examining dead bodies not much different from this one.

This chapter is eerie. It held my complete attention, my lunch pushed away and forgotten.


Your History in Boxes

Large sections of the book – the majority perhaps, since it is a memoir – deal with Mann’s family history. She describes members of her family, the stories of parents and grandparents, as a journey through boxes of old photographs and papers. We the readers are witnesses as she pieces together what she knows about her family with what she discovers in these boxes.

I imagine that writing this history must have been cathartic. To trace your family all the way back to the Mayflower must hold a special kind of significance. But I’ll admit she lost me here.

How nice – and strange – that her family history is so plainly and clearly laid out. How nice that you can trace your genealogy back to a rich, influential great-grandfather. These lengthy descriptions and documentation of Mann’s family have me wondering if this is normal and if my family, without records beyond two generations, is the strange one. But there’s no single normal in America, and this is as good a reminder as any of how diverse cultures in this country are.

Statue of liberty at sunrise

My mom’s side, Korean, from the North and South, with speculations about whether we have Indian blood in our veins.

My father’s side, German immigrants two or three generations back, who kept any family records and secrets hidden away from the newest family members. Maybe these records don’t even exist.

Perhaps Mann has made me aware of a loss, something I never knew I didn’t have. With both sets of my grandparents inaccessible – through distance, language, and relationships – my family history is shrouded. This history might die with my grandparents, never to be passed on. Pieces of it have already been lost, I’m sure, and the thought is a little sad.

Thanks a lot, Sally Mann, for taking me down this train of thought.


Confronting a Racist Reality

Now I leave that topic for an equally lighthearted one: racism.

Yes, Sally Mann tackles racism. Another series of photos I knew nothing about. She is honest and realistic in her approach and explanation. It’s natural, a photographer exploring racism through photography. Mann admits that the endeavor may have been futile. She questions how she can expect to resolve decades of racial strife in a single session with her models. She can’t, but she tries.

Nothing is ever accomplished without trying, but art that is trying too hard doesn’t usually accomplish very much. This is not meant to be a scathing critique of Mann’s work, but a reflection that extends to my own artwork.

How do you create artwork that tackles the tough issues but remains art?


Maybe – because this article needs a conclusion – like Mann.

By drawing on what occurs naturally – a naked child going for a swim or decomposing bodies – and striving to capture it in a way that helps the viewer see what you do.