SEAMAN: People who know your pho-
tographs may be surprised to learn that
writing was your first artistic calling. What
drew you to writing as a girl?
MANN: Probably loneliness. Mowgli-like
days spent in the company of another species. Little House on the Prairie isolation.
Dorothy’s (in The Wizard of Oz) sense of
bewilderment and displacement whenever
I had to emerge from the brush and go
with my mother to the store. Reading, being read to, was the only real exposure I
had to other lives and ideas.
I had such a rich life of the mind and
the imagination (remember: no television, ever) and found that as I read words,
I formed pictures. The two endeavors,
reading/writing and taking pictures, were
bound together from the earliest days.
SEAMAN: How does your strong visual
sense influence your writing? And, vice
versa, how has your love of language and
storytelling shaped your photography?
MANN: Not only do I form images, often
detailed, rich and darkly gothic, to accom-
pany what I am reading, but I sometimes
do the opposite: I see something I want to
photograph, and while I am setting up the
camera, I am composing a descriptive nar-
rative of the scene in my mind, like so:
The child is tentative but determined
as she stands on the prow of rock pretty
dam far above the river. She has probably
been goaded or teased on the way up to
her perch there, but she damn well isn’t
going to show the raw fear that exists
within her, and she for sure isn’t going to
ignominiously backtrack into the taunts.
It’s late in the afternoon and a dark sky
is ominously piling up the storm clouds
upriver. This is the kind of sky that people
die under in books, she thinks. The boys,
Emmett and Amar and Daniel, are making little eeeeeeeks and baby whines and
as they laugh, she rises with all the dignity
she can muster, stretches her fingers out
to the side, feeling the water from her
arms dripping from the tips of her fingers,
and proudly, serenely raises her chin.
SEAMAN: Your small Virginia town,
Lexington, was home or magnet or refuge to
writers, including Reynolds Price and Eudora Welty. Did their presence influence you?
MANN: Not the writers themselves, or
at least not as writers, because I was too
young and ignorant to know who they
were or to converse with them. Although
I spent a lot of my childhood spying on
Reynolds Price, whom I thought was the
most gorgeous man I’d ever seen. When
he would visit Jim Boatwright, who lived
in a cottage on the property, Reynolds
BY DONNA SEAMAN
Aworld-renowned photographer from Virginia, Sally Mann is best known for her exquisite and expressive black-and-white images of her children, southern landscapes, battlefields, and lyrical inquiries into decay and death.
Named “America’s Best Photographer” by Time in 2001, she
has many awards to her credit—among them, grants from
the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim
Foundation. Mann’s work has been published in an array of
celebrated books, including Immediate Family (1992), What
Remains (2003), Deep South (2005), and The Flesh and the
Spirit (2010). Her stunningly forthright, lushly textured, and
deeply shadowed memoir, Hold Still (2015), is a critically acclaimed best-seller, a National Book Award finalist, and winner
of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.