Alright, I should start off by saying this is by no means a definitive list, it’s really just my favorites and photographers that I believe are essential to a good educational foundation in the field. So let’s just start things off with my favorite photographer.
“It’s always been my philosophy to try to make art out of the everyday and ordinary…it never occurred to me to leave home to make art.” – Sally Mann
If you’ve talked to me about art for more than 5 seconds, you’ll have heard me mention my favorite photographer, Sally Mann. Kinda obsessed. (In fact, I even run a side blog on tumblr dedicated to sharing her work, fansofsallymann.tumblr.com. Not weird at all. Go follow it.)
Sally Mann, while already a respected photographer for her work At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, came to global attention in the early 90s after publishing Immediate Family. A monograph of exquisitely composed photos of her children, Mann’s work was met with some controversy for the sometimes-nude state of her subjects.
Personally, I don’t understand what all the fuss was about with the nudity. Kids are kids, and sometimes kids don’t wear clothes–especially when they’re running around their bucolic farm in Virginia, as Mann’s children did.
The pictures were made with an 8×10″ view camera (in case you’ve never seen one, they’re impressive.) Sometimes they’re posed, sometimes they’re spontaneous, sometimes she saw her children doing something interesting or poignant and asked them to hold the pose or recreate it. Whatever the case, it’s quite clear that these photos would not have been possible without the full cooperation of her children.
Mann’s family pictures perfectly depict childhood in all it’s facets–perfect, messy, sun-dappled, dark, fun, unpleasant, and everything in between. It’s a powerful work of art coming from a female; it declares that being both an artist and a mother do not have to be mutually exclusive, by depicting the beauty of motherhood and childhood.
After the Family Pictures (or somewhat concurrently) came the landscapes in Motherland and Deep South–Mann’s celebration of the south she grew up in and lived for most of her life. At this time Mann also began transitioning to wet plate collodion, a tricky photographic technique that dates back to the 1850s. The photographic artifacts caused by Mann’s implementation of this process are clear in the final prints, adding to their ethereal feel.
Other works include What Remains, a brilliant exploration of mortality and death, Proud Flesh, portraits of her husband and the effects of muscular dystrophy on his body (also a rare example of the female gaze), and The Flesh and the Spirit, a collection of some of her past work and the self portraits she made while recovering from a horse riding accident. Most recently she wrote the memoir, Hold Still, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
A documentary about Mann was filmed during the period she made the What Remains work. Described by The New York Times as “One of the most exquisitely intimate portraits not only of an artist’s process, but also of a marriage and a life,” I highly, highly recommend it.
“One of the things my career as an artist might say to young artists is: The things that are close to you are the things you can photograph the best. And unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art.” – Sally Mann