Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sally Mann in the Flesh

Seventeen years ago, my eleventh grade photography teacher took us out of the darkroom and into the light, introducing us to the works of Sally Mann.  It was 1993 and her work Immediate Family had just been released a year prior.  I was taken by the rawness of the images, and also admired her for continuing to create art, even though her subjects were limited in the midst of motherhood.

 I found her innovative, using her children as subjects, depicting scenes that many families would choose to leave out of their scrapbooks. Images of naked children with bloody noses, wet beds, busted ear drums, dog scratched legs, and swollen eyes were beautiful and disturbing.  Sweet and scary. Much like the ambiguity of motherhood.  Her unique perspective and use of natural lighting made you want to study every detail, but at the same time, you wanted to look away, knowing that what you were viewing was intimately personal. Being a fellow Virginian, photographer, appreciater of shock value, and now mother, I have wanted nothing more to be in the same room with the woman who has continued to inspire me over the last decade and a half.

I arrived at the Va Museum of Fine Arts at 9:08 am to get in line for the book signing of she and John Ravenal's exhibition book, Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit.  I was about eighth in line. Though the signing was supposed to begin at 9:15am, the marathon slowed her arrival, building the suspense.  As I got closer to her, my knees began to buckle.  There she was.  I wanted to tell her what an inspiration she had been to me, but I froze, saying nothing as I moved submissively through the signing assembly line.  I couldn't even talk to John Ravenal, sitting beside her, whose child I once taught in preshcool.  Co-writing this book, being a Sally Mann historian, and curating this exhibit, just made him too cool.  Would he really remember me anyway after 12 years? Besides, the talk with the panel was going to begin shortly.

 I walked inside the cafe, grabbed a free coffee, and thought since I had blown my chances of talking to Sally, I should at least say hello to Pam Reynolds, Richmond art icon, museum supporter and donor, standing in line beside me.  We made small talk over the coffee shortage, and as we parted ways, I could hear her tell her friend, that she wanted a signed Sally Mann book.  He said he was pretty sure she could get one.

Sally Mann at her book signing. (got so excited, I forgot to change my ISO)

My friend, Tish was still in line.  It had really grown since I got there.  I called my mom (that's what all the cool people do when they meet one of their heros, right?) and told her how the place was buzzing.  People arriving around 9:45 had to decide if they wanted a signed book or a good seat in the Cheek Theater for the sold-out show.
Sally and John are right behind the sculpture, Splotch #22.
A little after 10am, the panel consisting of photography experts, Vince Aletti (The New Yorker), Brian Wallis (International Center of Photography) and curator, John Ravenal welcomed a full theater to discuss Mann's career.  Then, there was a brief intermission and then the panel was joined by Sally around 12pm.  Hearing her talk about her work, was fascinating.  Even after all of her accomplishments, she continues to doubt whether she can produce another successful exhibit.  She talked about her photography process, where she often uses an 8x10 bellows view finder camera and how hard it is to get a clear image.  She often manipulates the images by using a wet plate process, where glass plates coated in collodian are then dipped in silver nitrate.  The effect is a swirling quality that also exposes flaws in the medium, which becomes part of the art itself.  Sometimes, she admits, her results are purely accidental. 

 She does suggest that artists keep a few projects going at once.  That way if one gets old, you can revisit another on and not feel like a failure.  She is currently taking pictures of old African American churches. She said out of hundreds only one image has made the cut so far.  Instead of getting frustrated, she has another project in the works.  She didn't say what either project was, but I have surmised from online research that the church photographs are probably for her study on the legacy of slavery in Virginia.

During the discussion, a young man around the age of twelve, stood up and asked  if she preferred to depict life or death.  She explained that there was such a thin line between the two.  Exploring death whether on film, or in real life as she and those around her age, makes living that much sweeter.

Wallin, Aletti, Mann, and Ravenal

Though "Immediate Family," spiked her success and left her blindsided by all of the controversy, causing her to retreat back to her farm and family in Virginia, Mann says it prepared her for her future critics.   When she released the work of "What Remains," they hardly flinched.  She and Ravanel agreed to leave her best known work out of the exhibition book, to focus on the process of her other exhibits.  You can, however, see these amazing photographs in the exhibit.

One of the most touching collections in the VMFA exhibit are those taken of her husband of forty years, Larry Mann.  The collection is called, "Proud Flesh," and follows the effects of her husband's muscular dystrophy over the past six years.  She describes him as brave and willing to take part in this documented exploration of not only the effects of the disease, but the female perspective of male genitalia.

She is brave, creative, loving, temperamental, original and provocative.  I was reminded today why I first fell in love with her.  Her style and process is like no other.  When she does work with digital cameras, she reverts the image, using her tried, true and often accidental techniques.  For the past few months, I have been trying to up my digital photography skills, studying techniques that boast "tact sharpness." Yet part of the beauty of Mann's work is trying to determine what the object in the photograph is.  I'm not saying that always works, it doesn't and it's her style.  But, as I have aimed for perfection in my images,  I somehow have forgotten the most important part of the art form is making it your own. 

Though some would tell me to change my white balance and ISO, the blue has an interesting gradient and is more soothing to the eye.  I tried both versions, and thought in the spirit of Sally, appropriate to break some rules.


  1. This is amazing! Thank you so much for sharing, Amy.

  2. thanks for sharing the experience with us here! this is very moving.