All Perception Is Selection: Photo Lessons from Sally Mann



4 minutes reading

American photographer Sally Mann (1951) earned her fame (or, according to some, notoriety) with the publication of her third book, Immediate Family, in 1992. With portrayals of Mann’s young children in the nude, the series was definitively controversial to the viewing public. Yet, the reaction inside the Mann household was something different. While getting dressed to go to the opening of the exhibition, Mann’s daughter Jessie dismissed a sleeveless dress because her chest was visible through the armholes. In her memoirs, Mann relates how a friend of hers commented:

“Jessie, I don’t get it. Why on earth would you care if someone can see your chest through the armholes when you are going to be in a room with a bunch of pictures that show that same bare chest?” To which Jessie replied with equal perplexity at the friend’s ignorance: “Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.” (1)

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs is Sally Mann’s first book of writing. In it, she looks back on over four decades of photographing, and two centuries of family history. Through this telling of the story of her life, she expresses also the core of photography theory. As in the story of her opening, she does so through stories about her kids. At other times it is through the contemplation of a life event. For example, when her father died she realised that: “It isn’t death that stole my father from me; it’s the photographs.” (2) She describes how she regrets that the photos that she owns of him replaced her real memories of him, all the vivid details and smells.

Photography is not glorified in Mann’s memoirs, but rather, she looks for a more fitting way to look at photography. While people often mistake photos for reality, Mann thinks that photos simply aren’t as layered as reality. She mentions the example of Diane Arbus’s photo of a boy in a park holding a toy hand grenade. If you look at the contact sheet of the photo shoot when she was photographing the boy, there are a bunch of photos of a kid playing, but in one photo, the boy has a maniacal look in his eyes and clenches the toy grenade with muscles tensed in an almost demented way. Arbus chose to publish this image, just as Mann would have done herself, she asserts. Yet, the existence of this photo doesn’t mean that the boy himself was mentally affected or physically spastic, it’s just a moment in which he looks that way.

When her book Immediate Family was published, it was met with immediate acclaim as well as accusations of child porn, this gave Mann pause to consider her own images. The images show her kids playing and living in their Virginia farm, portraying them as charismatic angels, sometimes in the nude. While the negative reactions caused a lot of stress in her real life, in her memoirs this made her contemplations on photography’s ethics lived and heartfelt. Does the photographer hold all cards? she asks herself at some point. “We always do. Exploitation lies at the root of every great portrait, and all of us know it.” (3)

Hold Still is written with a mostly down-to-earth yet intimate voice. Mann describes how she continued taking photos, “[a]lthough the pressure and confusion gauges often buried their needles in the critical red zone.” Despite the controversy of her Immediate Family project she continued doing projects about taboo subjects, thereby continuing to explore photo ethics. Like photographing decomposing dead bodies at a Forensic Anthropology Facility, capturing her husband’s withering muscles that suffer from muscular dystrophy, and taking photos of the southern US landscape that bear the scars of civil war and slavery. “If transgression is at the very heart of photographic portraiture,” she states, “then the ideal outcome— beauty, communion, honesty, and empathy— mitigates the offense.” (4)

The misunderstanding that photos are somehow proof of reality, instead of a curated extract from it, has caused Mann extensive criticism, by viewers and critics who found her work offensive or exploitative. In Hold Still, Mann answers that criticism with rich and layered stories from her own life, while contemplating the meaning of images from her life that are, however strong, still not capable of covering as much time and as many views as have existed in her life. “All perception is selection,” Mann asserts, and she continues: “Photos economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.” (5)

Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs
By Sally Mann
482 pages
Little, Brown & Company, 2015
ISBN 9780316247764

(1) Sally Mann, Hold Still, p. 153
(2) p. 302
(3) p. 292
(4) p. 293
(5) p. 151