Sally Mann has photographed a range of subjects since the late 1970s, from the people and environs of her hometown in rural Virginia, to desolate Southern plantations and somber Civil War sites. She is best known, however, for a series of intimate portraits of her children, which she began in 1984 and published in 1992 under the title Immediate Family. These lyrical black-and-white photographs, shot with an antique, 8 x 10 inch view camera, record Mann's son and two daughters growing up in the same unchanging landscape in which she was raised. The season is always summer and the children are usually outdoors, wearing little or no clothes. In some photographs, Mann's young subjects assume enigmatic poses in works that recall the staged allegories of the Victorian-era photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who also worked with children. More typically, they are engaged in everyday, childhood activities—swimming, dressing up, painting their bodies—or simply gazing assertively back at the camera.
Mann's photographs of her children are at once specific and universal. She creates a deeply nostalgic and tender record of Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, and their unique bodies and personalities, as if to freeze them before they slip out of childhood. At the same time, Mann is interested in viewing her children as part of a much larger cycle. She explains in her elegiac introduction to the series: "We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes—anger, love, death, sensuality, and beauty." Mann does not shy away from the darker or more taboo aspects of childhood. In a number of works, she acknowledges the sexuality that is already present in childhood by capturing her children's naked bodies in poses that imply adult knowledge. In The Modest Child (1990), for instance, her five-year-old daughter covers her chest as if to suggest shame for breasts that have not yet developed. Other photographs fast-forward further in time, even hinting at the child's mortality. In the ambiguous and haunting Fallen Child (1989), Mann's daughter lies facedown on the ground, her eyes closed and her body bathed in a radiant, ethereal light. With grass scattered all over her still body, she appears to belong to the earth.