Sally Mann | Immediate Family

Sally Mann’s collection of photographs entitled Immediate Family shows a mother’s documentation of her three children growing up in Lexington, Kentucky. Images within the series show the children playing, sleeping, and living out childhood experiences at their remote summer cabin. The series was first exhibited at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in 1990 and later was published in Aperture as a monograph in 1992 (Sally Mann: Immediate Family). Controversy quickly followed this work due to many images included featuring her children without clothing. Critics claimed Mann of child pornography and exploitation of her parental role.

Sally Mann belongs to a generation of photographers that initiated new ideas of documentation (Bajac 238). The goal for these photographers was no longer to simply see and save their surroundings but rather to say something with their photographs. Like many other contemporary artists, questions of truth and fiction permeate their work in a medium that comes with it a false assumption of realness. In the context of this body of work, these questions play a role in how the photographs are read and understood. Critics of the work argue that, because the subjects are children and the artist is their mother, there is an inappropriate exploitation of the children and that they have been robbed of an innocence that parents try desperately to maintain as long as possible (Why Was Sally Mann's Immediate Family so Controversial?). However, in an interview, when asked about the body of work now, the grown-up children claim an active willingness to participate and a fond memory of the process (Sally Mann 14:45). Knowing that the photographs were created collaboratively with the children, the viewer can appreciate the work as a constructive narrative that uses real moments rather than an exploitative act of capturing snapshots of private moments.

This distinction between truth and fiction can also be discussed within the context of the medium of Mann’s photographs. Often described as haunting, her photographs create an aura of otherworldliness due to her preferred use of an old large format camera. The use of large format results in larger prints and can produce more detail and higher definition. However, the process of large format photography forces a separation between those being photographed and the photographer due to its size and slow development process (Bajac 238). One can read this as an interesting relationship between construction and truth but also as a representation of the care Mann places into her work as both an artist and as a mother to her children. Those who are quick to fixate on an indecency of nude children are disregarding the role of the artist as a mother. As a result of this careful, time-consuming process, the images reveal an intent of showing what it means to live through the curious and explorative viewpoint of childhood and growing up and extend these feelings into the experience of viewing a photograph.

This body of work speaks to a topic in contemporary photographer that has not disappeared regarding the authority of subjects. This is an interesting body of work to examine this issue because it also calls into question the authority granted and assumed by children and when parents begin and end their responsibility for their children’s decisions. This work has further blurred the lines between art and the artist and changed how we might think about nudity in photography going forward. After the initial public controversy of this work about Mann’s private life, the art world has commended her for the project’s innovative look at childhood in a way no other artist has examined it before (Price).


Bajac, Quentin, et al. Photography at MoMA: 1960 - Now. Museum of Modern Art, 2015.
Price, Reynolds. “Photographer: Sally Mann.” Time Magazine, 9 July 2001,,9171,1000293,00.html. “Sally Mann.”, Charlie Rose LLC, 1 June 2015, Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.

“Sally Mann: Immediate Family.” Edwynn Houk Gallery,

“Why Was Sally Mann's Immediate Family so Controversial?” Public Delivery, 22 Feb. 2020, family/#Why_does_this_series_matter.