Sally Mann, the American photographer who rose to international fame in the 90s with pictures of her own children, does not court controversy. But by allowing us to penetrate her intimacy and discover her damp and troubling environments, we are pulled into her obsessions. The haunting retrospective ‘The family, the land’ is accompanied in parallel at the Elysée Museum in Lausanne by ‘Polaroid in peril!’ dedicated to the survival of a Polaroid collection.
From March 6 to June 6, 2010 one of the world’s most prestigious, elegant, accomplished and impractical photography museums will be home to two exhibitions that will be hard to ignore.
“I wanted to end with a flourish,” says Canadian William Ewing who leaves the Elysée Museum after 14 memorable years at its helm. “I wanted the last exhibition before I leave to embrace emotion rather than offer a vision of the world.”
Voted “America’s Best Photographer” in 2001 by Time magazine, Sally Mann’s black and white pictures contain a disturbing power.
The exhibition at the Elysée, co-curated by Sally Mann herself, reveals major themes relating to three distinct periods in her work: children, landscapes and death.
Sally Mann met with international acclaim when the elaborately staged black and white photographs of her own children taken between 1984 and 1991 were published in 1992 under the title of “Immediate Family”. Taken in the sweltering heat of the summer months in Virginia, where Mann was born and continues to live, the pictures offer a chronicle of sweet nothings, with children playing, sleeping, swimming, jumping and being bored.
No photographer is history had enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world, claimed a New York Times article at that time, indicating that more than a half-million dollars worth of photographs were sold in six months.
But Sally Mann was soon to experience a moral backlash. This was an era when the art world in the USA was coming under attack in response to Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic exhibitions and Jock Sturgis’s pictures of pubescent adolescents in nudist camps (that were raided by the FBI). The public funds of the National endowment for the arts experienced massive cuts.
Where Sally Mann saw only the adoring look of a mother on her three beautiful children, suddenly the languid nudity and stylized poses of Emmett, Jessie and Virginia were considered to be child pornography. She was allegedly told by a federal prosecutor, whom she consulted, that at least eight of her photographs could land her in jail.
Moving away from the human figure, Mann then concentrated until 1998 on capturing the laden atmosphere of the “Deep South”, her own homeland scarred by the history of the Civil War and slavery. Her landscapes drip with dampness and are charged with the “blood, sweat and tears that Africans have shed in the dark soil of their new ungrateful homeland”, to quote the artist.
At a time when digital photography was becoming increasingly popular, Sally Mann reverted to the use of nineteenth-century equipment complete with vintage lenses (including one said to have belonged to the famous French portraitist, Nadar).
The collodion process that she uses, with large plates that are dipped in a bath of silver nitrate immediately before they are exposed, requires the presence of a mobile dark room. Long exposure times in excess of five minutes contribute to the eeriness of her photographs and forbid any form of spontaneity.
The last section of the Lausanne exhibition, entitled “What remains”, is dedicated to putrefaction and death, but in such a stylized manner that it (almost) escapes morbidity.
The show ends with giant close-ups of the faces of her children who have now reached adulthood, “treated as landscapes”, as William Ewing points out. She asks them to hold expressions that are “sweet, serene, just a little mysterious”.
A key to understanding Sally Mann is to be discovered in an award-winning film that accompanies the exhibition. We see the Manns on, what can best be described as, a working animal farm in the thick, luxuriant vegetation of Virginia. The family lives in communion with the cycles of nature, including death and regeneration.
What appears to be a deeply intellectual production bordering on the gruesome suddenly emerges as an innocent light being cast on the natural complexities of life.
“She sees the world in images,” says Larry Mann of his wife. “That’s just the way she functions.” Her latest work, not on display, is a tender portraiture of the body of her husband weakened by incurable muscular dystrophy.
“The things that are close to you are the things you can photograph the best,” Sally Mann says to explain the intimacy in her works. “I’m nothing but full of respect for people who travel the world to make art, but that’s not my way. It never occurred to me to leave home to make art.”
Occupying the basement of the Elysée Museum, the “Polaroid in peril” exhibition dedicated to alerting public opinion to the risk of seeing a priceless collection dismembered because of the repeated bankruptcies of Polaroid could not be more different than the one by Sally Mann.
It is colourful, insolent, amusing and full of life. It is also a serious statement in favour of a technology that revolutionized our relationship to time, the first to suggest that immediacy was possible.