Sensitive, thoughtful, intense, pragmatic, rebellious and tranquil, may be some of the words associated with photographical genius Sally Mann especially after visiting her debut solo-exhibition, ‘The Family and the Land’ at The Photographers’ Gallery.
Sally Mann is not only an amazingly strong, intelligent and quick witted woman she also possesses a flourishing and long spanning career as an American photographer whose style is of an almost socio-documentary capacity. Mann draws on the world around her, focusing on inspiring moments in the family and the broad landscape all captured over the period of three decades from 1984-2005.
The well-known notion, ‘Family is where the heart is’, quite literally is brought to life with Mann’s innocent portrayals of her three children – Emmett, Jessie and Virginia. Large, close-up portraits of her children’s faces that form part of the series entitled ‘What Remains’ – almost a commemoration of the living – occupy the ground floor of the gallery. The process of using a long exposure combined with the archaic wet-collodion techniques (an early photography method using a glass plate coated with chemicals) aids the desired speckled and ‘flawed’ surface that Mann is so fond of.
Journey on up, and one not to miss, is the continual video on the landing, ‘What Remains: The life and Work of Sally Mann’. Yes, possibly 80mins is a long time to perch on chairs but the film is an insightful look into Sally Mann’s home surroundings and it is utterly riveting to witness Mann immersed in the thoroughness of what she loves, her family and her work.
Gallery 2 showcases Mann’s most prominent work, ‘Immediate Family (1984–94)’ which not only attracted a lot of speculation and criticism at the time due to the raw and unedited nature of the exposure of her children naked or partially naked yet also propelled her to international acclaim. Mann managed to encapsulate all the fun and frivolity attached to childhood showing the three siblings playing and swimming in the surrounds of their farmhouse in Lexington, Virginia. The close relationship between mother and child is fascinating and emotionally enables you to transport yourself to a time once lost. Mann followed ‘Immediate Family’ by focusing on the land itself in her series ‘Deep South (1996–98)’. Exploring natural forms, she discovered an old tree with protruding roots twisting across the barren floor almost creating the illusions of bones harking metaphorically back to the American Civil War. Using antique cameras and processes the imperfections accentuates the sense of age creating a hauntingly beautiful depiction of the world post war.
It is the stories behind Mann’s continual inspiration for her projects that anchors all the meaning of her work. After an unexpected police chase unraveled onto the families deep South homestead, Mann began to explore the taboo subject of death and what remains when we are gone. This concept led her to visit the Forensic Anthropology Center in Tennessee, where human decomposition is studied in a variety of outdoor settings in order to asses and photograph the course by which a body is absorbed into the land. Initially the subject in question would sound quite shocking yet Mann as always approaches her subjects in a dignified and sensitive manner and in fact produces images which are an unusually captivating education, encouraging us to reflect upon our own mortality and place within nature’s order.
Although the flow of the exhibition is somewhat interrupted with the few flights of stairs in-between the prospect of what is to come for next autumn from The Photographers’ Gallery is one of promise. With a complete renovation of their newly relocated central site in Ramillies Street, renowned architects O’Donnell & Tuomey are let loose on the space and the final unveiling will be in 2011.
Sally Mann: The Family and the Land is now in its last few weeks so if you haven’t seen it…
The Photographers’ Gallery, 16 – 18 Ramillies Street, London, W1F 7LW
Open Tuesday – Sunday
18 June – 19 September 2010
Words by Zara King
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