Sally Mann: Collodion Process

Aug 20, 2013 9:16PM

The following is an excerpt from an interview between Art21 and artist Sally Mann from 2000, wherein the artist describes her photographic process, including an overview of the wet plate collodion process practiced by the artist since the mid-1990s.

ART21: What triggered the desire to use glass-plate negatives?

MANN: I guess, because I was so immersed in that whole glass-plate, nineteenth-century aesthetic, it was natural to want to learn how to do this. Back in the early ’70s, when we came back from Europe, Larry and I were poking around up in the attic of this five-story building on the [Washington and Lee] campus. And we found this collection of glass negatives that had been taken around Lexington, right after the Civil War, by a local photographer. In fact, he photographed at the cabin, right here on the farm. It was an amazing moment when I held up a glass plate—and damn, it was a picture of the same cliffs that I’ve looked at my whole life, exactly as they are now, even the little vines hanging down. Those same vines are still there. And these ancient arborvitae trees, which obviously had fallen over one hundred years ago—there they were, in the glass plate.

It was a moving thing, to see these images and be able to retrace his steps to a certain extent. He photographed the landscape around here beautifully, and of course it’s the aesthetic I’m most partial to. I love those [John Beasly] Greene pictures, and Gustav LeGray and Atget. I’m surprised it took me this long to get to this process, because I’ve always admired that aesthetic and find it redolent with past. I just need to inject a little of the present in it. Obviously, I don’t want to take the same pictures he took.

ART21: How much time did it take you to master the technique?

MANN: I never mastered it.

Sally Mann was first featured by Art21 in Season 1 of the series, "Art in the Twenty-First Century." Read the full interview and watch videos featuring the artist at

Additional images: Sally Mann at her Lexington, Virginia home, 2000. Production stills from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 1 episode, "Place," 2001. © Art21, Inc. 2001.