The New York Times Magazine editor calls Sally Mann two or three times a year offering assignments. Jodi Foster, Al Gore, a dead body in Tennessee.
“And I have to turn her down,” says Mann. “I don’t do editorial work.”
Why does she keep calling, then?
“I guess ’cause I’m fun to talk to.”
Which she is, for fully 40 minutes.
Her more interesting, and more
unexpected, answer is to the question, why does she say no?
“It makes me nervous to do work someone else wants, because what if it’s not any good?”
Nervous? Sally Mann? After five books of confident, groundbreaking photography; an Academy Award-nominated documentary on HBO and BBC – and Time magazine naming her America’s best photographer in 2001?
“I have this self-doubt that’s so deep it masks itself as vanity,” Mann says. “If they knew how many bad pictures I take, they’d never ask me. I’m a monkey at a typewriter.”
Mann did take one assignment for New York Times Magazine – the dead body in Tennessee, a decaying corpse at the University of Tennessee forensic research center. Mann had been photographing the remains of Eva, one of her adopted greyhounds, wanting to explore the aftermath of death, inspired partly by the passing of her father – a “doctor, a really good, sensible doctor” and a talented horticulturist – in 1988.
“Yeats said – wasn’t it Yeats? I’m almost positive it was Yeats,” Mann tries to recall. “There are only really two topics for an artist, and those are love and death.”
It was Yeats, she confirms in an e mail a day later, and his topics were “sex and the dead,” but in Mann’s work love, sex and death seem to merge as themes anyway.
As “What Remains,” her most recent book of photography, evolved, three more sets of photos followed: a police search for an escaped prisoner on her Lexington farm, of the battlefield at Antietam, of her children’s faces, so close they’re almost obscured.
In the book’s prologue, Mann writes about her father, “Where did all of that him-ness go?” Has she answered that question? I ask.
“No, I guess I didn’t. All I really answered was where a part of him went.” She pauses as she thinks this out. “I answered where the physical part went, to a small extent, and I answered the question of what remains, to a great extent.”
But – “all that knowledge, all that wisdom – where the hell does that go? I wish you could transfer the files.”
Mann’s very personal photos have reached a worldwide stage. The photos for What Remains are at the Corcoran Gallery in New York until September. Both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have Mann’s work in their permanent collections.
But Mann herself has stayed close to home, continuing to live and work on a farm outside Lexington with her greyhounds and her husband Larry Mann, who she describes as an “Atticus Finch attorney” with “the perfect life” – a lawyer and a part-time farmer.
He’s the subject of her newest work, too.
“I’m convinced that the last frontier of photography available, at least to me, is the female spouse photographing the male model,” she says. “The woman is always the model. I’m setting out to reverse that trend, single-handedly.” She’s laughing. “I’m going to change the history of art!”
Mann’s previous books circle around her own life: her children, her friends, the Virginia landscape.
“I photograph things that I care about,” she says.
“At Twelve” (1988) is a series of portraits of young women in the Lexington area, weaving between heartbreakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly impoverished. Most of her work is in black and white, and much of her recent work is created with primitive equipment and on damaged film as she experiments with techniques last utilized in the early development of photography.
Another project-in-progress is far from home – later this year she’ll fly back to Qatar, to photograph the desert there, for another book.
“In theory that’s what I’m doing, but I’m such a slow worker,” she says, the half self-deprecating, half-amused insecurity creeping back into the conversation. “Just watching me, I look like an imposter. My camera is held together with duct tape, I drop things, the camera is never level, everything’s held together with safety pins.”
“I just don’t look very professional.”
Mann’s work will be on exhibit along with paintings by Janet Fish Aug. 26-Dec. 10 at Hollins University, where Mann earned a B.A. in photography and an M.A. in writing. 540/362-6081.
A followup to the HBO/BBC documentary will appear as early as spring 2005, and she plans her next book, Deep South, to be released in September 2005.