Sally Mann: The Beauty of Family

Every so often, a photographer will find himself embroiled in scandal because of the sensitivity of his chosen subject. Photographers like W. Eugene Smith and Lewis Hine experience some criticism for their photographs many decades ago, but these days it seems the most innocent subjects can be the most controversial. When portrait photographer Sally Mann began documenting the beauty of her own family, she found herself in the middle of a heated debate on what exactly passes for natural and indecent in the medium. (WARNING: This post contains NUDITY).

Sally Mann first expressed her interest in photography as a high school student at The Putney School, and later took up creative writing in her college and postgraduate years. On her first job as a photographer, she made surrealist landscape images of an construction project at Washington and Lee University. Her photographs earned her her first exhibition, and was her first step into becoming more well-known in the art world.

Her second project in 1988 was what earned her a controversial name in the industry;  At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women is a collection of images which "capture the confusing emotions and developing identities of adolescent girls", and led to some discussion about sexuality and children. Still, the images were tame compared to Mann's most famous work.

In 1992, Mann published Immediate Family, a collection of black-and-white images which featured her three children: Emmet, Jessie and Virginia, all of them under the age of 10 and all of them mostly in the nude. Mann wanted to capture the childhood of her young ones through the eyes of a mother, and she did it through a gothic narrative which bared everything from smoking candy cigarettes on the porch to skinny dipping in the Virginia heat.

Many critics however lashed at the controversial photographs, branding them as child pornography and accusing Mann of being an irresponsible parent. The suggestive nature of the images and their subjects led to the collection being cast along the thin line of intimacy and indecency.

After her Immediate Family project, Mann delved into other areas, going into landscapes with her images of Louisiana and Mississippi, and then exploring the ideas of death and decay by photographing decomposing bodies at a "body farm". Throughout all of these projects, Mann used her century-old 8 x 10 bellows view camera and wet plate glass negatives which she had been accustomed to using since her first foray into photography in her high school years.

Throughout the years, Mann has maintained her position of staunch honesty despite the allegations of eroticism and exploitation. While much some of her fame is derived from the controversial nature of her nude photography work, there is no question that, peeling away the years of unending debate, her photographs are simply beautiful.

This is Sally Mann's official website where there are more examples of the beauty of family, landscapes and death. Many of her publications are still available, among them are Immediate Family, What Remains and At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women.


  1. I can see how it's art and at the same time controversial. Isn't that what art is about though? With regards to exploitation of her children or children in general, that can be a very shaky line. On one hand, it's an honest expression of a mother / artist and you have to trust that her intentions are such. On the other hand, I'm sure plenty of people take advantage of those situations and the children become victims. Tough call but thanks for sharing

  2. While I wouldn't go as far as calling it pornography, I think it's impossible for me to look at these without feeling uncomfortable.

  3. Gorgeous pictures. I can see why it's controversial.

  4. those pictures are haunting. Like D4 said, they do take you out of your comfort zone but still masterful works of art.

  5. These are beautiful photos. It's easy to see why they're controversial, but I don't think they cross that line into pornography.

  6. I can see why these are controversial but yet they are her children just playing. Not exactly porn. But personally i would not want the world to see my children naked.

  7. I have a ten year old daughter and a 11 year old son. I asked them to look at these pictures and give their opinion. They both agreed the pictures are beautiful. I asked them to look at the naked girl and to tell me what they think of the girl being naked in the picture. They both concluded she is naked, "so what". They also commented on how pretty she looks; both my son and daughter were very complimentary of her. I think one of the biggest problems we face as a society is one person trying to judge another, and taking something like child nudity and very creative/artistic pictures, which are not a big deal at least to my children, and contorting it into something other than innocent. It is a sad commentary on the sate of mind of the those who go to ridiculous extremes pushing their beliefs and values on others. Perhaps that is what Sally Mann was saying when she stepped outside of the box with these photos.

  8. shame on you!!!!!!!!!!! cps should get you for that there are perverts online that could view those photoes
    thank god those arent my kids!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Love to hear that you showed your kids and that they responded very positive after seeing those nude children


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