Sally Mann: Proud Flesh

Photographs by Sally Mann

Published by  Aperture and Gagosian Gallery (2009)

Reviewed by Tamara Voninski

In a world where so many photographers travel to far and exotic places to take photographs, it is oddly unusual to find a photographer who photographs metaphorically and physically only in her own back yard. It is even more extraordinary to discover a photographer who creates extreme timeless beauty using large format cameras and vintage lenses and the unforgiving techniques of the wet collodion process.
Sally Mann has captivated my imagination and soul on deep levels over a twenty-year period by producing very high quality, boundary-pushing photography books. Her art follows her life in a rural town in Virginia where rolling green hills seem to flow to infinity. I remember the first time I experienced the magic of turning the pages of a Sally Mann book. It was 1991 and I lived in Norfolk Virginia three hours from where she lives and creates her art.

 At Twelve was on a coffee table and intrigued by the title, I turned page after page deeply affected by the photographs of 12 year old girls in her hometown and the concept behind the book. The book Immediate Family sparked a voracious debate during a spur of the moment road trip with other photographers during my university days.  I saw striking and poignant raw beauty in the photographs of her own children erstwhile others questioned the morality of Sally Mann photographing her own children. At the point where she stopped this project, she began another, different body of work. She mentioned almost as a footnote during an artist talk I attended in the late 1990’s that she had turned her camera away from her children and toward her husband Larry. I wondered about this body of work and when the book would be produced for many years.

“Proud Flesh” is a slim monograph published by Aperture that accompanied an exhibition of Sally Mann’s ambrotypes at Gagosian Gallery in New York. Although she has been working in traditional wet-plate processes for years, she has been highly criticized by many contemporary practioners and craftsmen for her sloppy pouring techniques.  She doesn’t pour a perfect plate where the collodion goes edge to edge in preparation for loading it into her view camera. Instead she misses spots and leaves “islands” or other marks that many wetplate practioners would consider flaws and mistakes.  However, it is the subject matter, not the techniques, which draws me to this body of work.  How often do we see aging men in their naked glory as dreamlike
creatures from the bedroom and beyond?

 During an interview for Joerg Colberg’s blog Conscientious, Mann said , “I am a woman who looks. Within traditional narratives, women who look, especially women who look unflinchingly at men, have been punished. Take poor Psyche, punished for all time for daring to lift the lantern to finally see her lover.” She goes on to say:

It is a testament to Larry’s tremendous dignity and strength that he allowed me to take the pictures that I did. The gods might reasonably have slapped this particular lantern out of my raised hand, for before me lay a man as naked and vulnerable as any wretch strung across the mythical, vulture-topped rock. At our ages, we are past the prime of life, given to sinew and sag, and Larry bears, with his trademark god-like nobility, the further affliction of a late-onset muscular dystrophy. That he was so willing is both heartbreaking and terrifying at once.

I have been waiting in earnest for this book for 15 years ever  since I first heard Mann mention her new body of work.  I was surprised, yet captivated once more by her unique use of narrative, pushing the boundaries of photography.


TAMARA VONINSKI has concentrated on quirky, off-beat documentary photographic essays from around the world for the past 20 years. Her award winning photographs have been published & exhibited widely throughout Australia and overseas since 1988. Voninski is a founding member of the Australian photographic collective Oculi. In 2010 she co-published the monograph “Oculi” (Hardie Grant Books) with an exhibition currently travelling galleries in Australia.

Since basing herself in Sydney in 1998, her book-length photographic projects from Oceania include dream-like black and white street photography in Australia and a series of photographic stories depicting Polynesia.  Her photographic essays have won international awards and residencies including: International Pictures of the Year Awards, AGNSW residency at Cite Internationale des Arts and Alexia Foundation Photography for World Peace grant.