A Conversation With Sally Mann - 23/07/2010

So, the day finally came!

After being cancelled last month due to her husband being ill, Sally Mann's talk at the national portrait gallery was finally rescheduled, and after much stressing that i wouldn't get to London in time after work, we made it in one piece...

I am going to find it very difficult to describe the evening and do it the justice it deserves...I will try my best!

Firstly, Sally spoke about her most famous body of work 'Immediate Family' which is featured in her exhibition at The Photographers Gallery (that I hope you have gone to visit!!) and the techniques she used when photographing young children, such as 'exclusion' - only looking at the one area you wish to capture, ignore any surrounding features, obviously, large format photography is perfect for this as the images materialises on the glass in front of you. She is a strong believer that the photographs of her children show their true powers, and that the images are the result of a strong 'collaboration' between them and the camera, without their co-operation, they wouldn't of held the magic qualities they do. She finds it hard to believe that people think she forced them into posing for her, "They Say NO to me all the time!!"

We were lucky enough that her youngest daughter Virginia was also present at the talk, and joined her mother on stage to answer some questions from the audience about her participation in 'Immediate Family', interestingly, she said she hated it when Sally began photographing natural landscapes as she missed being the centre of the creative attention! That silenced any critics.

What I found most fascinating, was how Sally spoke about the 'Southern Mentality' in art, features of which being: "Literary Overtures, Place, Family, History, Romance, Regional, Myth, Melancholy and Nostalgia" all of which are of course, VERY present within her work, but funnily enough, are features i wrote about for my last project, how a landscape can provide the perfect surroundings for deep thought and reflection.

She then spoke about the 'What Remains' work, and we discovered that the show had been cut down to suit the space of the photographers gallery...i was furious! If the space wasn't suitable for the project, why not have in The Tate? A larger, more flexible space? Anyway, turns out that a set of her images of her dead Greyhound were taken out of the show, if you buy the 'what remains' book you can see how beautiful these images are.

When questioned over her decisions to take photographs of dead bodies for 'what remains' she answered that her life has always had a relationship and interest in death, as her father had a great interest in death iconography. However, she did say she worried about if the people who had given their bodies to the body farm would mind being photographed, as "They gave their bodies to science, but not to photography!" She wants these images to be a visual 'Caress', she seems to have succeeded, as she has been surprised by the accepting response to the work.

She also made a very valid point that any controversy that the project caused didn't even compare to the backlash she received because of 'Immediate Family', she said, 'It would seem that children raise more trouble than dead bodies!'
Alongside the 'What Remains' body photographs are large scale close ups of her childrens faces, she said she hopes these provide 'Hope' and a reminder for life after the rest of the exhibition, which she described as 'a march through mortality'. She also stated that the whole project had been a 'Series Of Chance' as with her techniques (which she admits is extremely haphazard!) she can never be sure if she will even get an image! (I can't help but feel she was just being modest!)

She then was amazingly kind enough to show us some of her brand new work which she had been keeping to herself until now...she has continued to explore the 'Southern Mentality' by choosing to examine the past history of slavery and the civil war. She showed us a handful of stunning glass plate photographs of black male models at her home, and nearly all the feedback from the audience was rapturous. She admits that she simply wants to explore what it means to be black in the south, and the way she spoke about the work almost had a child-like fascination, not to sound patronising in any way, but she just seems to want to learn. She plans to place these portraits alongside landscape shots of the swamps of The South, and pictures of churches. She see's the work as a 'communication exercise', she wants to portray something almost unpalatable...One slightly negative reaction from an audience member was that her 'antique' practice raise the notion of the history of slavery and inequality more so than if she used 'straight' colour...I just couldn't believe that Sally Mann was asking US what WE thought...utterly surreal.

Everyone thought it was extremely brave of her to preview this work in London, as despite us being so multicultural, race is still an extremely sensitive issue to talk about, and to hear her speak so plainly about how black citizens in The South are still 'the other' was shocking, and i must admit, i did take a sharp breath when she first showed us the images. It's fascinating how such a body of work can provoke such reactions to an audience who are used to a multicultural society, it proves we are still unwilling to really TALK about it.

She isn't 100% certain she will even use those images, but I truly hope she does, they were utterly stunning.

One last comment she made that stuck in my mind was "Photographs are given not taken."

Utterly brilliant.

Sally Mann is the best Photographer in the world.


No-one could ever compare technically or intellectually to her, and do you know what really makes me happy? No man could have ever made any of this work. Impossible. Only a woman could have taken these approaches. Actually, just one woman.

I was just so overwhelmed by how refreshingly modest and straight talking she was. One thing I can't stand about art is when it becomes inaccessible to anyone because of the over complicated or pretentious delivery of the work, or the patronising attitude of the artist. Anyone should be able to look at an image and see that it's 'good' or 'bad', and not be afraid of making that judgement.

Sally Mann is a true photographer in every sense of the word. What i love about her talent is she's used it for essentially the 'greater good', she has developed a very special relationship with her children through photographing them over the years, and is constantly exploring and learning about the world around her through her camera. Who could criticize that?

It was an absolutely honour to listen to her, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

No comments :