Lessons I learned from Sally Mann

Saturday, July 15, 2017


My copy of Hold Still and yes, with that many bookmarks

As an amateur photographer, the one thing I enjoy the most is reading interviews of renowned photographers out there. The digital world has made it so easy these days for aspiring journalists/writers to build their own project interviewing creative individuals. Possibly, one of the questions that is frequently being asked is, “Who're other photographers/artists that inspire your work?” This question has been stuck in my mind for quite a while. While I do have some photographers from different eras whose works I look up to in terms of both consistency and story they portrayed through photo series. I found that it’s also a question that I have always been having a hard time to answer.

Last year, I stumbled upon a long article published in The New York Times. It highlighted a (sort of controversial) photographer named Sally Mann. It hit me hard, I had such a long pause after reading her story. Her most known work is a series called Immediate Family where she documented her three children, Emmett (RIP), Jessie, and Virginia in the most genuine way of living in the suburbs of Virginia. Running naked, swimming in the lake, showing most of her children’s body part that was considered rude and unethical back then. The popularity she was getting in her golden years also had risked the life of her children being overly exposed as the main subject of her photography in the mass media. From that moment on, I was mesmerized by her work as I browsed through most of her dreamy black and white yet poetic photographs and was really curious about who she is as a person.

I was lucky to have bought both her life memoir, titled Hold Still and Immediate Family photo book at American Book Centre in Amsterdam last year. As soon as I got back home, I spent most of my time reading Hold Still, I simply cannot put that book down. It felt as if I was reading a letter from a friend who genuinely shared both her life’s greatest moments and sorrow. I have recently finished the book after hitting the pause button for almost 6 months to sort of digest all of her thoughts. Today, I’m sharing with you some of the valuable lessons that I have learned from her.

1. Talent is overrated

How often do people label the success of someone as purely talent? Well, in this case, it obviously requires a lot of hard work and failure, even for Sally whom I thought has her own spark from the day she started photographing her family. It turned out that she came a long way to be where she is right now.

“Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new pictures that offer benediction.”

In that chapter, Sally shared with her readers one basic thing that is often overlooked. Although she believed that she has the obvious talent, she’s not using it as a reason to label herself as an extraordinary photographer, as if good photos will come easily. Instead, she got back to her roots, making ordinary art that is close to her heart. It’s the art that most of us actually can make if we care enough to look beyond the ordinary.

2. Look beyond visuals

I used to believe in the phrase of “Pictures speak louder than words.” long before my amateur understanding of photojournalism and storytelling. I now consider that an absurd statement for individuals who couldn’t care less about the work they’re producing or simply, too lazy to learn how to write. Long before photography, Sally has enjoyed writing poetry of mostly her admiration toward landscape in Virginia. This poetry entitled A Summer Passing was written as a result of the longing for her home while she was away at Putney for college.

“….Where all my life
By the one river
The upper field…
The one place

This has become
All grief
And all desire
For Me.”



After spending a huge amount of time photographing her children, at some point, she reunited with this passage and decided to take photographs of Virginia landscape known as "Deep South", driving with her camera from the cool river to the sweltering upper fields.
“At the time, I didn’t care whether the pictures I was taking were any good, or how I was going to inscribe my deep love of place, this time with photography, in a way that could begin to explain it. I hadn’t made a picture of the landscape for at least a decade.”
Her interests in landscape, people and death also have landed such amazing opportunities to publish both her personal project and being assigned by huge publication such as The New York Times. I guess you have to be curious in a lot of aspects of life in order to create rich and meaningful work as a photographer.

What motivates you as a person? What kind of issues always catches your attention? A camera is only a tool, and it doesn’t come as easy as pressing the shutter button, the mind has to wander, even sometimes suffer to the point you’re ready to give it all in.

You don’t have to go far to start, we can look up to Sally who begins at the heart of her homeland. I learned about this slowly as an important way to get to know myself and society better. It was sure ain’t easy, I struggled a lot of time doing a personal project. With that thought in mind, the reward is producing genuine work that comes from within. After all, it started from a personal story, what’s yours?

3. Familiarity removes possibility

When we are so used to being in a certain environment, we remove the eyes that spot beauty and appreciation toward mundane things. We get so familiar with it to the point of not wanting to explore deeper. In other words, we take the moment passing for granted. It was during Sally’s first memorable years of motherhood that went in a blink of an eye, undocumented until she finally realizes that the pictures she enjoys taking the most were the ones that involved her farm house and children, the place where she grew her wonderful family.
“Why it took me so long to find the abundant and untapped artistic wealth within family life, I don’t know. I took a few pictures with the 8x10 inch camera when Emmett was a baby, but for years I shot the underappreciated and extraordinary domestic scenes of any mother’s life with the point-and-shoot…Maybe at first I didn’t see those things as art because, with young babies in the house, you remove your “photography eyes”, as Linda Connor once called the sensibility that allows ecstatic vision.”
For me, it probably has to do with my neighborhood and my city. You have no idea how many times I’ve spent on the road wanting to stop because I see a potential for good images, but I didn’t do it. Sadly, I let that feeling of familiarity get into me, too often.

4. Hold Still

"Good photographs are gift...Taken for granted they don't come."


Sally Mann, Virginia at 6, 1991

What I like about reading this memoir of hers is that she honestly laid it all out. From the scrapbooks, sketches, coupons, letters, and my absolute favorites, the long processes behind her photographs. She shared her struggle in 7 days attempt to get that perfect photo of Emmett in the river (link). Chasing the right light, hands, position, and expression. 7 days, people!

Some people just don’t get the idea of how hard this profession is, although we ain’t no Henri Matisse who brings serenity through colourful paintings nor Van Gogh who traveled all the way to Provence to give Cyprus tree a new meaning. Photography involves a lot of emotions and elements; it is because we already have it all in front of our eyes, it makes the job a lot harder. Sometimes all you need is patience and not forcing things to happen. I really admire this particular part of the book, she wrote it beautifully.
“You wait for your eye to sort of “turn on”, for the elements to fall into place and the ineffable rush to occur, a feeling of exultation when you look through that ground glass, counting ever so slowly, clenching teeth and whispering to Jessie to holdstillholdstillholdstill and just knowing that it will be good, that it is true. Like the one true sentence that Hemingway writes about in A Moveable Feast, that incubating purity and grace that happens, sometimes, when all the parts come together.
And these pictures have come so quickly, in a rush…like some urgent bodily demand. They have been obvious, they have been right there to be taken, almost like celestial gifts.”

In this era where millions of pictures are taken each day using smartphones, to say this book is a great reminder is such an understatement.

5. It (probably) runs in the blood

One thing I realized the most is that the passion you’re doing right now probably runs in the blood. In this case, it was Sally’s father who first introduced her to photography through a Leica III that she got as a gift before moving out for college. She shared all of the memorabilia of her childhood from the letters, drawings, and obsessions toward some of the photography subject that she had taken for years (landscape, people, and death). In the last few chapters of the book, she also found out that the pictures from her Deep South project were as nearly the same as what her father had taken outside New Orleans in 1939. She writes about her father very often, especially about his artistic interests which heavily influenced her in so many ways. Here are some of my favorite lines:
“I began to see my artistic life-starting from my earliest pictures taken at age seventeen with that same Leica, right through to my own 2003 artistic exploration of death, published as What Remains-as the inevitable result of my silent father’s clamorous influence.”
One photographer friend of mine, Marianna Jamadi, also got her big influence in photography from her father. For me personally, it was my mother’s incurable desire of wanderlust and capturing memories of my childhood that have a personal impact on me. I remember that I grew fond of 35mm and broke her point and shoot camera as a result of my curiosity. Although she hasn’t influenced me directly in terms of photography, I dearly believe it’s a sign from the universe.

Well, it doesn’t have to be specifically the same profession, rather what I’m trying to say is our family roots might have a deep influence in what we’re pursuing right now, be it from our interests or hobby. Maybe we just have to be more aware of it.



“To be able to take my pictures I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about."

One of my big homework this year is to create more personal work because I believe it's the most rewarding thing that we will always cherish and remember as we grow older, with a bonus if it can relate or inspire other people. Obstacles in producing more meaningful work means that we need to challenge ourself to be more critical towards certain issue that we desire to portray through photography.

Thank you Sally for being true to yourself and for sharing your journey with the rest of us, you obviously inspired me in a lot of ways.

special credit to Natasha A. Tanga for being an awesome proof reader and get rid off too many of my unnecessary ramblings :p

2 comments:

  1. This sounds really, really marvellous. At the moment I'm trying to pursue more of the things I'd like to do with my time / for a living. And reading these things are really inspiring, not just for photography, but seeing it in a bigger picture. I'll definitely put this on my to-read list.

    The pictures are beautiful, of course. I'm so happy you shared them because I (shamefully) never heard of Sally Mann. Thank you for this post! :)

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    Replies
    1. I poured my heart and thoughts in writing this post and I'm glad to hear that you enjoy reading it and find it inspiring. Thank you for the kind words, Louise. I agree, these lessons definitely applicable for many things outside of photography. Hope you're doing well!

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