How Annie Leibovitz pictured Sally Mann’s sense of place
On Mann's birthday, we look at how tactfully Leibovitz approached her fellow photographer, on Mann's home turf
Sally Mann (born on this day, 1 May, back in 1951) and Annie Leibovitz are both highly regarded photographers, yet their careers are about as different as you can imagine.
While Leibovitz has criss-crossed the world shooting rock stars, world leaders and Hollywood’s elite, Mann, who turns 68 today, has stayed at home in Lexington, Virginia, training her camera on her children.
"Sally’s father bought the farm in 1960, when Sally was nine,” Leibovitz explains in her book, Annie Leibovitz At Work. “It became a family retreat – over three hundred acres of fields, old-growth forests, and a river sheltered by steep cliffs. As a child, she galloped her horse through the pastures bareback and swam and fished in the river.
“When Sally got married, she and her husband became owners of the farm and they raised their own children there. Sally’s most well known photographs, which appeared in the book Immediate Family, as well as much of her later work, were made at the farm. She had been photographing her children since they were born. The children are beautiful, the setting mysterious. The river and the cabin are at the very heart of their world.”
In 2015, Annie set out to enter that world, as part of her on-going series, Women. The shoot was a little more delicate than others, because, as Leibovitz observes, “I was photographing another photographer, which is always a little awkward, and in this case the other photographer was closely associated with the setting – her farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was her turf and she is protective of it.”
This territorial aspect was both a strength and a weakness, as Leibovitz was keen to get a strong sense of place in these photographs. She asked Mann – who was initially quite wary of the project – to wear the usual everyday clothes that she might put on when she was printing her photographs. Leibovitz had her subject stand in the outbuilding that serves as her studio, surrounded by work and working equipment. For a reticent subject she looks remarkably at ease.
However, there’s another, even more open and candid portrait of Mann that appears in our book. Here’s how Leibovitz describes that image.
“In the late afternoon, I summoned my courage and said that maybe we could go down to the cabin on the river and take a look around,” she recalls. This was, as Annie knew, quite an intimate setting; Mann’s father and brothers built the cabin themselves, and she has photographed her children swimming in the nearby water. “I didn’t go near the river itself,” she recalls. “I stuck by the cabin door. She sat on the step. It seemed to me that the history of every moment her family had spent there went into that moment.”
To see the image Annie is talking about, as well as much more besides, order a copy of Annie Liebovitz At Work here.