Visual Culture

This Artwork Changed My Life: Sally Mann’s “Immediate Family”

Matt Williams
Jan 7, 2020 4:05PM
Sally Mann
The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987
Edwynn Houk Gallery

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Milly Burroughs on Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure.

Sally Mann’s 1992 book Immediate Family overflows with photographs that capture the ecstatic bliss of youth, in all of its wildness and fragility, danger and innocence. It tells stories about insect stings, sun-kissed lunches, familial devotion, and the transformative power of nature. It is, often, almost unbearably intimate. With acres of private Virginia wilderness to roam, Mann’s children frequently appear nude in her photographs, which inevitably led to pearl-clutching from religious groups. It’s this unparallelled intimacy, though—this most private glimpse into the everyday lives of this constellation of people—coupled with the photographer’s reverent and gifted eye, that elevates it to a place beyond mere family photo album fodder. Every moment seems to illustrate a transcendence, yes, but those moments remain ragged and of the flesh even as they float towards holiness.


It is a body of work that’s swollen with beauty. But there are images that stand out. I was introduced to Mann’s work shortly after I began doggedly developing my skills in 35mm photography, hiking through the streets of Toronto seeking out magic moments. Immediate Family was a revelation. Candy Cigarette (1989) drew me into its strange otherworld; The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude (1987) manifested a palpable yearning inside my chest for the unbroken rivers of my prairie home; I wondered whether it was even possible to capture a moment like the one Mann caught in The Perfect Tomato (1990)—so gossamer, so fleeting. When I learned more about film formats and the camera she used to make the photographs of Immediate Family, the whole thing seemed incomprehensible. She snatched these tiny moments out of the ether, like a street photographer, with an antique, 8x10 view camera?

She hadn’t. One of Mann’s slyest accomplishments with Immediate Family—not one that she set out to fulfill, I want to note—is convincing the viewer that none of the photographs have been staged. Maybe to some, it was obvious that many of the images were not created in what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment.” But I imagine those people might have some formal art school education, and know that this is simply another way of approaching photography. I was, and remain, bereft of any sort of art education. For more time than I’d like to admit, I think I believed deep down that a photograph only had artistic merit if it had been made in that “decisive moment,” a singular record of a vanished, unadorned slice of time.

It was Mann’s memoir, Hold Still (2015), that granted me a second, more profound revelation from Immediate Family. In the book’s title chapter, she writes about making The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude. Creating the photograph was a painstaking affair in which she hauled her son out into the river, along with her big, clunky 8x10 camera, at least seven times. Mann shot her son first in September and then into October, until Emmett finally declared that would be the last time. The water was freezing.

I cannot overstate the extent to which learning this small anecdote altered my perspective on creation. It seems unfathomably naive now, but at the time, it felt like permission had suddenly been granted—permission to sculpt the worlds I could see but was wary to create, permission to assemble moments I worried had been lost, and most importantly, permission to operate outside the construct of linear time. It became the catalyst for the most ambitious project I’ve embarked on to date: a recreation of the dreams and memories that have defined my life.

Before Immediate Family, I’d been convinced that making photographs by reconstructing moments would result in art that was somehow “less real” than the moments those images allude to. But this led me to realize that either it all had to be real or none of it was. I found myself firmly in the “all of it” camp. What became important wasn’t the imagined accuracy of the minutiae of an event, but to manifest truthfully the feelings it conjured. It’s in the pursuit of this that certain artists are able to uncover a “hyperreality,” a confluence of visual and emotional truth that lives beneath the surface of the materiality we typically perceive. Immediate Family is a stunning example of this.

When the visceral embeds itself in our consciousness as memory and emotion, it may change, warp, and swell, but it does not fade away completely. What was still is and will always be. This is the way we carry trauma, in our bones, in our essential material; I believe it’s also the way we carry ecstasy. Drawing on those experiences and feelings in order to create allows us to define them, understand them, come to peace with them. It allows us to render ourselves real.

Head to Elephant to read its latest story in the series, Milly Burroughs on Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure.

Did an artwork change your life?

Artsy and Elephant are looking for new and experienced writers alike to share their own essays about one specific work of art that had a personal impact. If you’d like to contribute, send a 100-word synopsis of your story to [email protected] with the subject line “This Artwork Changed My Life.”

Matt Williams