Sally Mann has been working in the photographic arts since 1970. Her observations and creations are a complex and puzzling mix of reverence, audacity, empathy, objectivity, vulgarity, beauty, the familiar and the strange. That and her unusual techniques make her highly revered and controversial. You may best know her and the controversy by way of the following photograph from a collection featuring her children, mostly nude and outdoors. She’s also known for odd and unsettling juxtapositions, like a poetic series of rural southern landscapes and a disturbing series of decaying corpses from the body farm of the forensic lab at the University of Tennessee.
She will make you uncomfortable, and she knows that, and she doesn’t take it lightly because she cares enormously about what she does and how she does it. Perhaps because it is so thought provoking, her photography lends itself to words; though often rendered speechless, I inevitably find myself thinking about the photographs as metaphors and concepts, which is not to say that articulating the thoughts is easy. I imagine it was a tricky thing, finding the right voice to accompany the photographs in this retrospective, but I doubt anyone could have done better than John Ravenal. Text and images feel of a piece, and Ravenal beautifully translates the essence and particulars of Mann’s art and craft into words by which to further contemplate and explore.
I find myself appreciating Mann’s art more as I age, which has to do with my vision changing. Literally it has changed, but I’m talking about perspective. Life in all its manifestations becomes increasingly cluttered with artifacts. Baggage is another word for it, the emotional and cognitive and actual baggage that accumulates with experience and time. It’s not all bad, but there’s grief in the mix, and disappointment and ill will and illness and so on. Mann is fascinated by photographic artifact, which is profoundly representative of the artifacts of age and experience.
The portrait series shows “tightly cropped face(s) pressed against the frontal plane of collodion wet-plate images on dark glass. Mann exploits the capacities of this unusual photographic medium, called ambrotype, to create severe distortions of her features across rows of degraded likenesses. The effect seems to materialize the ravages of time on mortal being. At the same time, a ghostly quality, recalling nineteenth-century spirit photographs, hints at the presence of otherworldly forces. Contrary to first impressions, and crucial to understanding Mann’s work, is the fact that these distortions do not come from manipulating the plates after the image is taken. The blurring, fading, scarring, and peeling of the images are ‘honest’ artifacts, purely the accidental effects of the collodion wet-plate technique.” (p.3)
Lest anyone think the process is so random as to lack artistry, Ravenal elaborates: “Mann embraced what she saw as ‘perfect flaws’ . . . Mann’s expertise allows her to court and guide these accidents to a degree . . . making her works an active collaboration between the artist’s vision and a finicky process.”(p. 5)
Mann is considered among the top half-dozen master printers in the country, and the range of her effects and types and subjects is evidence aplenty of expertise. She is especially interested in “the aesthetics of outdated and handmade photography, she has also assembled a collection of antique uncoated lenses, whose valued effects include soft focus, light leaks, diffraction, fogging, and flares.” (p.4)
As subjects go, she favors landscapes and the human form as observed in varying states of emergence or deterioration. The outcome often as not is disturbing on some level, but it may also be humorous or tender or even reassuring. She is among the most human and humanistic contemporary artists, and this collection is an outstanding review and representation of the flesh and spirit of her work.