Connected \\ June 27, 2018

Reflecting on Sally Mann as storyteller

Like many students of art history, curator Sarah Kennel’s first introduction to Sally Mann came with Immediate Family. Published in 1992, Mann’s groundbreaking and controversial exploration of childhood stands as one of the great photography books of our time.


R. Kim Rushing, Sally with camera (c. 1998). Gelatin silver print. Collection of Sally Mann. Image © R. Kim Rushing.

Some 20 years later, Kennel got the opportunity to not only meet Mann, but to make multiple trips to the photographer’s family home in Virginia to collaborate on the exhibition Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, co-curated with the National Gallery of Art.

It's an amazing experience to see the place where Sally not only makes her work, but where she really draws in a lot of the inspiration,” says Kennel, The Byrne Family Curator of Photography. “That was a real treat.

We recently spoke with Kennel about the pioneering artist, her process and the enduring power of photography to tell stories.

Q: What did you learn about Sally Mann that you didn't know before you started work on this exhibition?

A: A great discovery for me was actually how funny and irreverent Sally Mann is. A lot of her pictures seem very charged, very thoughtful, very reflective. She's taking on really powerful and deep themes, particularly mortality, the Civil War, the legacy of racism and slavery. There's also a really wonderful, humorous and witty side to both the artist, and I think, if you look carefully, in the works themselves. It's a balance of levity and humor, along with really powerful stuff.

Q: Why should people care about this particular photographer?

A: Sally Mann is one of the most important photographers working today. She began photographing in the late 1970s and has continually deepened her process. Also, she is telling powerful stories about what it means to be human, what it means to have a family, what it means to get old. She is telling stories about the world that we live in now, and how it's been shaped by really powerful events, by slavery, by the Civil War, by the enduring aspect of racism, but also by the beauty of the world that we live in. These two things exist in balance in her photographs.

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Sally Mann (American, born 1951) On the Maury, 1992, gelatin silver print, Private collection. Image © Sally Mann.

Q: What do you think home means to Mann?

A: Primarily, it means family. She was born and raised in Lexington, Virginia, and still lives there. Her family — parents and brothers— built the cabin she and her husband Larry spent many summers with their own kids. They built the farm where they now live. They built the house in Lexington that they lived in before the farm. There's a real personal investment in place. Home also means the complicated legacy of the South for Sally. Beyond that, I think, home also means love.

Q: How does Mann’s love of literature and poetry inform her images?

A: Sally Mann is one of those rare artists who's equally accomplished as a writer and photographer. A lot of her views on the South have been shaped by the literature and poetry of the South. William Faulkner was a big influence, along with William Styron. The poet Ezra Pound was deeply impactful on her, as was Eudora Welty, Nabokov and so many others. This came out in a series called Proud Flesh. Proud flesh is the term for the scar tissue that forms over a wound. There's an idea of damage and decay, but also pride in it. She made this series photographing her husband after he was diagnosed with late onset muscular dystrophy. They're very powerful and tender pictures, very intimate ones, detailing both the beauty of his physique, but also the ravages of this disease. For many of these pictures, she paired them with lines of poetry or literature from her favorite authors, which allow you to see the picture in a new and expanded way.


Sally Mann (American, born 1951), Semaphore, 2003, gelatin silver print, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase, 2010.264. Image © Sally Mann.

Q: Her photographs have been described as hauntingly elegant. How does she achieve that?

A: In the 1990s, at a moment when a lot of other photographers were discovering digital, she went back to almost the origins of photography and learned a 19th-century process called the collodion negative process. This is a complicated, messy and imperfect process in which a photographer takes a glass plate, covers it with collodion, which is a sticky substance with the consistency of maple syrup. As you can imagine, this process is very vulnerable to flaws and mistakes. Nineteenth-century photographers worked really hard to make the process flawless, but Sally Mann discovered that, in fact, she liked those accidents. She began working with this sense of chance. We see this experimentation in a lot of her photographs, evidence of the making of them, but these accidents read metaphorically.

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Sally Mann, (American, born 1951) Deep South, Untitled (Stick), 1998 gelatin silver print, printed 1999 New Orleans Museum of Art, Collection of H. Russell Albright, M.D.. Image © Sally Mann.

Q: How has she influenced other photographers?

A: When Sally Mann started photographing her children in such intimate and direct ways in the 1980s, there were a few other photographers doing that, like Emmet Gowin, but she was one of the pioneers. I think that she's part of a generation of photographers who made it OK to transform the personal life, the domestic sphere into the subject for great art. How many people feel up to photographing the impact of mortality, death, memory or race? She is fearless.

Q: Why does she predominantly work in black and white?

A: One of the characteristics about her work, particularly some of the landscapes and more recent photographs of churches, is that we have a hard time pinning down when they were made. I think that this sense of historical slippage, this sense that time is out of joint, is something that fascinates Sally.

Q: What do you hope people are thinking about when they leave the exhibition?

A:  I think her work about the South and about history is calling to us now. It's asking us to recognize a history of slavery and oppression that this country is still trying to come to grips with. We are all experiencing this in different ways. It's really important to understand how history is embedded in the earth, and how it continues to shape the world we live in.

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is on view June 30 to September 23, 2018.

After PEM, Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings will travel to:

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, November 16, 2018–February 10, 2019
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 3–May 27, 2019
Jeu de Paume, Paris, June 17–September 22, 2019
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, October 19, 2019–January 12, 2020

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