Famed Photographer Sally Mann on Family, Myth, and What ‘Sets Southern Artists Apart From Anyone Else’

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

Production still from the series ART21 Exclusive. © ART21, Inc. 2014. Courtesy Sally Mann.
Production still from the series ART21 Exclusive. © ART21, Inc. 2014. Courtesy Sally Mann.

The photographer Sally Mann has spent her entire career documenting the land and inhabitants of her family farm in Lexington, Virginia. Through Mann’s camera lens, viewers have been able to glimpse the landscape of the generational homestead where Mann grew up and raised her own children, its details rendered with lyrical intimacy.

Throughout her work, Mann has dug into the themes that, she says, are particularly important to Southern artists, whom the artist characterizes as being preoccupied by “their love of the past… their obsession with place and their obsession with family.” 

In “The Two Virginias,” Mann looks at a figure who was not related by blood, but who played an intimate, formative role in her life: Virginia Franklin Carter, the African American woman who worked for her family for three decades and raised Mann and her brothers. “My parents were important,” Mann says, “but Virginia may have been the single most important person in my life.” (In fact, Mann has named her own daughter Virginia, as a tribute; she is the second Virginia of the title).

Virginia Franklin Carter. Production still from the series ART21 Exclusive. © ART21, Inc. 2014. Courtesy Sally Mann.

Virginia Franklin Carter. Production still from the series ART21 Exclusive. © ART21, Inc. 2014. Courtesy Sally Mann.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 back in 2014, Mann told the story of Carter‘s life and the lessons she had taken from her, not least about the power of art through exposure to the ceremony of the black church on Sundays.

“When I think of the hardships in her life and the inequities,” Mann adds, “it is astonishing that she could love three white children who didn’t have a clue.”

The full scope of Sally Mann‘s practice is available to the public with the opening of “Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings” at the Getty Center this week in California, on view now through February 10, 2019. See Art21’s video on “The Two Virginias,” below.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series premieres this September on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.


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