Sally Mann exhibition

I’ve visited The Family and the Land: Sally Mann, an exhibition of Sally Mann’s photographs at London’s Photographers’ Gallery several times recently (July 2010), and my reactions have been different – evolving – each time.

Sally’s reputation-making series “Immediate Family” was strong, direct and candidly honest at the time it was published, and remains a set of excellently expressive portraits today. But this was not my main interest, I really wanted to see her more recent work, particularly her landscapes. She has been using hand-coated glass plates and the wet plate collodion process, which predates gelatin-based plates and film, and requires rapid pre and post exposure processing. This process was popular from about 1850-1890 and many example exist that show flawless technique, so we know it can be done. Flawless technique is definitely not what Sally is aiming for though: if you are expecting master craftsmanship you will be disappointed. In fact, in the film about her work she hopes that she never achieves this mastery. She want the serendipitous dust specks or coating flaws to achieve the look she seeks.

I found myself having to work to accept this concept. Sure, I’ve used simple lenses, pinholes and alternative processes myself, but I’ve never wanted the process to intrude on the image to the extent that Sally does. Still, after a couple of visits to the exhibition I could see the merits. For me it worked particularly well in the series of decaying bodies (What Remains) but less well in the closeup portraits; the extreme closeness, restricted plane of focus, primitive lens and process flaws all combine to produce photos taken to an extreme – into the realm of novelty rather than beauty, exaggerated beyond the point of real meaning or message. My reaction to the landscape images (Deep South) interested me a lot. They needed a long look and a second visit before I started to warm to them. My particular favourite was Swamp Bones, 1996, depicting the stumps and roots of swamp cypress, highly reminiscent of old bones, which was particularly appropriate given the juxtaposition of the photos of decomposing human bodies.

As a whole, it was a rather sombre exhibition with undertones of death and decay, so I can understand why Sally would want the last impression, exiting the gallery, to be one that is life-affirming, though as I’ve said these ultra-close, ultra-large portraits didn’t really do that for me since they have a marmoreal, death-mask quality to them.

Do try to watch the film (also showing in the gallery, What Remains: the Life and Work of Sally Mann. 2006. Director Steven Cantor. Zeitgeist Video) as this gives an excellent insight into Sally’s work and influences.

Full marks to the Photographers’ Gallery for this, their last show before refurbishment, and to the curator for giving the photographs the space they need. I look forward to many more when the gallery re-opens!

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