Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sally Mann: The Family and the Land

Sally Mann is having her first solo retrospective at The Photographers' Gallery.

"Mann is perhaps best known for Immediate Family, her third collection, published in 1992. The book consists of 65 black and white photographs of her three children, all under the age of 10. Many of the pictures were taken at the family's remote summer cabin along the river, where the children played and swam in the nude. Many explore typical childhood themes (skinny dipping, reading the funnies, dressing up, vamping, napping, playing board games) but others touch on darker themes such as insecurity, loneliness, injury, sexuality and death. The controversy on its release was intense, including accusations of child pornography and of contrived fiction with constructed tableaux. Mann herself considered these photographs to be “natural through the eyes of a mother, since she has seen her children in every state: happy, sad, playful, sick, bloodied, angry and even naked.” Critics agreed, saying her “vision in large measure [is] accurate, and a welcome corrective to familiar notions of youth as a time of unalloyed sweetness and innocence,” and that the book “created a place that looked like Eden, then cast upon it the subdued and shifting light of nostalgia, sexuality and death." [Wikipedia]

This is a really enjoyable exhibition. Although the photographs of the decomposing bodies (her most recent photographic indulgence- see photo 5 above) did not move me greatly, I thought that the full face portraits of her children (now adults- see photo 4 above) taken on a plate camera and developed with a wet-plate collodion process was some of her best work since 'immediate family' (photos 1-3 above).
It made me want to explore similar printing techniques and the exhibition in general was quite inspiring.
I learned great deal from the 80 minutes documentary that is shown in a small room off the stairs. I really recommend it to anyone that wants to settle the argument with themselves about whether Mann's photographs of her children are exploitative and offensively provocative. I was relieved to hear her children (now in their 20's) all speak comfortably and intelligently about their mother's work and they showed no signs of retrospectively regretting their involvement in 'immediate family'.
A highly recommended exhibition.