Photographer Sally Mann’s work is rooted in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, among the rolling hills of Rockbridge County, where she grew up. She shares her 425-acre farm with five dogs and four well-loved Arabian horses faithfully fed each morning by her husband, Larry Mann, a blacksmith and a lawyer.
If you know Mann’s work, you might remember her startling photos of her children that caused a stir during the culture wars of the early ’90s. The kids were smudged with dirt, often naked, looking feral. The children are grown now, and the notoriety of those photos has faded over the years.
Mann is now considered one of the most influential photographers of her time.
Ignorance Is Bliss
Some of Mann’s most recent work is focused on Larry, her husband of 40 years.
They married when she was just 19. He was 22.
“We were blind with love,” Sally says. “He was so good looking. He was tall and he looked so capable.”
Sally turns to Larry. “You looked useful and strong.”
“Deceptive,” he says.
“Oh, no, no, you were useful and strong,” she says. “You still are.”
Sally has a piercing turquoise gaze, her graying-brown hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. Larry towers over her. He’s rugged, with a solid frame, and you realize, watching him move about the farm, that he’s got a pronounced hitch in his step.
About 15 years ago, Larry was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Slowly, he’s been losing muscle, mostly in his right leg and left arm.
“Something I could do easily months ago, all of a sudden I find I can’t do as well,” he says. “Going up stairs is getting increasingly difficult. The [biceps] in my left arm is gone now completely.”
When asked if the atrophy is limited to his limbs, he says he doesn’t really know.
“Some forms of muscular dystrophy can affect the heart,” he says. “So at some point, I’ll probably have to do some other tests, like an echocardiogram.”
Mann interjects — she says, “Let’s not do that.”
“The doctor said, ‘Why don’t we check out your heart.’ But wouldn’t it be worse to know than to not know?” she says. “I mean, there’s nothing you can do about it. I think I’d rather you just fall off the perch than worry about you falling off the perch. Ignorance is bliss in this case.”
Larry laughs a little. “I agree,” he says. “Absolutely.”
Down in her photography studio close by the house, there are lots of windows and a pungent chemical smell. — ether.
It’s almost dreamlike the way we move; each one of us knew what we had to do and we weren’t talking. But there was something very quiet, very loving about the whole process — his willingness to go through it and also his encouragement of me.
Sally says it smells like her art.
It’s here that she took some of her latest photographs of Larry, moody black and white nude studies of his form.
“It’s almost oneiric, it’s almost dreamlike the way we move; each one of us knew what we had to do and we weren’t talking,” Sally says. “But there was something very quiet, very loving about the whole process — his willingness to go through it and also his encouragement of me.”
Sally photographed Larry using a cumbersome process that goes back to the 1850s: collodion wet plate, creating a large-format negative image on glass, not film.
She shoots with antique view cameras from the early 1900s, the kind where you duck under a cloth to take the picture. They have hulking wooden frames, accordion-like bellows and long brass lenses held together with tape, with mold growing inside. She says she loves that. It softens the light, makes the pictures timeless.
“I’m just the opposite of a lot of photographers who want everything to be really, really sharp and they’re always stopping it down to F64 and they like detail and they look with their magnifying glass to make sure everything’s really sharp,” she says. “I don’t want any of that. I want it to be mysterious.”
And the mystery comes through in the images — an intimate series called “Proud Flesh” — with milky light and shadow playing across her husband’s body.
Sally says a good picture often comes at the expense of the sitter. That exploitation is at the root of it, even when it’s your husband.
“And he was willing to make himself so vulnerable,” she says. “Cause the series wasn’t so much about his illness and the degradation of his body and muscle as it was just a paean, just a love story. But you couldn’t avoid looking at the waste of his right leg and his left arm. And he was completely willing to show that, which is extraordinary.”
Sally says they didn’t talk about the process very much.
“I’ll be interested to hear what he says about, as a matter of fact, isn’t that funny?” she says. “No, we didn’t talk about it — we just started taking the pictures. He would say, ‘Let’s take some pictures this week.’ He would always encourage it. He’s really brave.”
A Heartbreaking Photo
Back in their house, Sally and Larry leaf through a book of those “Proud Flesh” images, and Sally points to one called Tender Mercies.
“This breaks my heart. I almost didn’t print this one because it broke my heart. It brings tears to my eyes right now,” she says. “You just look so tender and so vulnerable. It gives you a stomach, which you don’t actually have, sweetie. It makes you look bloated and sick and weak and those poor, poor little vulnerable testicles and this looks like a ligature mark. I don’t know why, this picture really gets me. It almost crossed that line, that invisible line that I have that says, ‘I can’t do it.’ “
But as concerned as Sally is about showing her husband weakened and frail, he’s not. If it’s a good, strong picture, he says, it’s not hurtful.
“I have to say when Sally started that series, she was asking whether I was going to be comfortable with that,” he says. “And as soon as I saw those first images, I just thought, ‘These are strong images. These are great.’ “
And that’s been one of Larry’s roles over the years — to back Sally up, tell her “just keep going,” when waves of self-doubt come crashing in, as they often do.
“It’s not a lack of confidence because I can’t argue with the fact that I’ve taken some good pictures,” Sally says. “But it’s just a raw fear that you’ve taken the last one.
“But you do, sort of, when you look at your life as an artist, you do see that when you get to be 60, this is the last chapter.”
Larry calls that statement “a little dramatic.”
“I hope it’s a little premature,” he says, laughing. “She tends to speak in categorical terms like that. And I kind of ignore it. Cause she’s perfectly healthy, doing great work, keeping going. There’s no reason to think of it as last chapter.”
“You have such faith,” Sally says.
Sally has moved on from the “Proud Flesh” series with Larry. She does have an ongoing series of photos she has shot over their decades together, which has never been exhibited or published. They’re deeply intimate moments of Larry and of them together. It’s called “Marital Trust.”
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