Lessons from Sally Mann’s landscapes

Looking at Sally Mann’s Southern Landscape images, I noticed that she had used a range of techniques to create their dreamlike, hazy and mysterious qualities, and I jotted down the ones I was able to identify as an aide memoire to myself in case I want to try to capture this kind of atmosphere in my own images. Clearly an important factor contributing to the overall look of the images is the quality of the light in the southern states, which she describes as “layered, complex, and mysterious, especially in the late afternoon” (American Suburb X, 2013), along with the humid, misty atmosphere, but I was looking for the technical features, and identified the following:

— She uses a very shallow depth of field, ie a large aperture.
— She often frames the images with objects in the near ground, such as trees.
— This framing is accentuated by heavy vignetting.
— Sometimes she makes the frame/near ground the area of sharpest focus while the distant areas are in soft focus; other times the distant ground is seen through a hazy frame.
— Some areas of the image are often underexposed (especially where they create the framing) while others may be overexposed.
— Sometimes she uses what appears to be a double exposure.

There are probably other technical aspects involved, but these are the ones I’ve spotted so far.

Sally Mann, from the series Southern Landscapes (1998)


After writing this post this morning, I decided to try out these techniques on my daily walk this afternoon. With my 50mm prime lens I set the aperture to f/1.8 and the autofocus area to a single point so that I could easily select which part of the image I wanted to be in sharp focus. I took quite a few pictures and chose four to take into Lightroom, where I converted them to b&w, added vignettes, darkened shadows and lightened highlights. After exporting them I saw that the whites and mid-tones needed a yellowish tint to make them more like Sally Mann’s images, so I added that in Photoshop.

Obviously attempting to mimic someone else’s style in this way is not a very creative thing to do, but I enjoyed it, and it made me photograph scenes that I’ve walked past dozens of times before without noticing their potential as images. Furthermore, after making these images it occurred to me that in fact Sally Mann’s images themselves were referencing work by Eugène Atget and others from that period. A little more research led me to an article in which Mann discusses her use from the mid-1990s of the wet plate collodion process, citing Atget and Gustav LeGrey as influences in that choice “because I’ve always admired that aesthetic and find it redolent with the past” (Art21, 2000). I also came to the conclusion that the strong and quite hard-edged vignetting she used in this series might be a reference to pinhole photography – evoking a sense of long history and also giving the impression of viewing the scene from a distance, either in the sense of looking at it through a device or at some remove in time.

Gustave LeGray, The Grand Wave (c.1856)

Eugène Atget, Rue Boutebrie, Paris (1900)

References and resources

American Suburb X (2013) ‘An exclusive interview with Sally Mann’. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/01/interview-sally-mann-the-touch-of-an-angel-2010.html [accessed 05/03/18]
Art21 (2000) ‘Sally Mann: Collodion Process’. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/art21-sally-mann-collodion-process [accessed 05/03/18]
Mann, S. (2013) Southern Landscape. USA: 21st Editions
Mann, S. (2018) ‘Southern Landscapes’. Available at: http://sallymann.com/selected-works/southern-landscapes [accessed 05/03/18]