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The Notoriety of Sally Mann, Photographer Extraordinaire

written by: Kristina Dems•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 3/16/2015

Sally Mann is a popular portrait photographer. She was marked as the best photographer in America in 2001. However, controversies of Sally Mann are still hounding the photographer to this day.

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    Sally Mann

    Sally Mann Sally Mann is a photographer who became notorious for her photographs of children, which many have said depict children inappropriately. Controversies of Sally Mann have made headlines since she started photographing young girls in their adolescence. She was influenced by her father, and one of her earliest works was a picture of a nude classmate. Her book “At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women" released in 1988 sparked a controversy for her shots of girls in their puberty stage and set the stage for what would be a series of debates. The images showed adolescent girls displaying various confused emotions, providing a dramatic mood to the collection.

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    Immediate Family

    Immediate Family Four years later, Sally Mann followed up that controversial book with another controversial yet critically acclaimed collection titled Immediate Family. Mann continued to document girls going through the transition to womanhood with an honest depiction of her three children playing in the sun. According to critics such as Janet Malcolm writing for the New York Review of Books, Mann’s photographs were both strange and beautiful. The said critic said the photos were not typical ones and could be hung at the Museum of Modern Art - a direct praise to the artistic shots Mann had done with her own children as her models.

    The New York Republic also called it as one of the best photography books of its generations. Soon Mann’s works, including her earlier masterpieces, were put on display at various galleries across the United States as critics also praised her for interesting depiction on childhood and motherhood.

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    Salacious Choices?

    However, not all sectors were impressed with Mann’s work. While art critics lauded her inventiveness and boldness, other sectors refuted her work as just too salacious. Some of the pictures showed her children playing and swimming in the nude. One image of her daughter - at the age of 4 - showed the girl’s nipples and pubic area, which were censored by the Wall Street Journal. While the book showed themes like dressing up and napping, other darker themes were touched in the collection including sexuality and loneliness.

    Although she was hounded by these accusations, Mann was never deterred. Instead she later declared her images to be natural and seen “through the eyes of a mother," as she said in one of her biographies.

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    Critical Acclaim

    Despite the accusations, Sally Mann’s rise continued. In 2001 she was named the best photographer in America by no less than Time Magazine. The revered publication said the photographer’s combination of carefully arranged and spontaneous instance of child repose and play made Mann stand out. The publication also defended Mann saying that she showed patent devotion to the project.

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    It should be noted that Sally Mann was inspired by other great photographers who documented family life through their cameras. One of them was Emmet Gowin who was an award-winning Virginia photographer. It is said that Mann was inspired from Gowin’s intimate style and fresh look at portrait photography, which she carried on in her controversial works.