‘I Pick Up Whatever’s Around’: Watch Photographer Sally Mann and Her Family Reflect on How Their Everyday Lives Became Art

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Photographer Sally Mann Street on May 22, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Gordon Parks Foundation)

For the last quarter century, the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, has been commissioning photographers for an initiative called “Picturing the South.” The subjects range from swamplands to high school students, defunct industrial centers, and images of the scars of slavery. Now, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the High has mounted “Picturing the South: 25 Years,” a comprehensive exhibition that features an archive of the commissioned works of the past alongside new works.

One artist whose work is synonymous with the American South is Sally Mann, a native of Lexington, Virginia, who lives there to this day. The geography of the South is present in Mann’s work, which ranges from landscapes to portraiture, including her series “Immediate Family” featuring her husband and three children, as well as their farm which is yet another member of the family.

Sally Mann, Untitled (1996). High Museum of Art, Atlanta.”Everyone looks at these pictures, and it’s like, you must have had the most amazing childhood,” Jessie Mann says in the video, which originally aired in 2001. “We did. I was literally a water nymph until I was 12,” she said laughing. When the children got older, though, Mann turned her lens toward the landscape around her, embarking on trips to Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama and using rudimentary and often damaged equipment that left scratches, leaks, and an out-of-focus effect on many of the prints.

“If I could be said to have any kind of aesthetic, it’s sort of a magpie aesthetic,” Mann told Art21, “I just go around and I pick up whatever’s around. It’s very spontaneous.”

That spontaneity often lends itself to documenting the rapidly changing American South. Emmett Mann described his parents as deeply invested in the rich history of southern cities, “especially in the United States, that is being destroyed so quickly… their relationship is so much tied with the land… they are really aware of how important maintaining a sense of beauty in what surrounds you.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Picturing the South: 25 Years” is on view at the High Museum in Atlanta through February 6, 2022. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.


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