A major thread of Sally Mann’s photographic work is the intimate documentation of her children’s development. However, the images that make up Immediate Family (1984-94) are not simply family photographs — they are characterized by a high art, self-conscious attention to the subtle, serendipitous details of everyday life. It is this tension between her intimate imagery and intellectual, historical, artistic approach that drives her current exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery in London, entitled The Family and the Land.
Mann’s children are most often photographed in and around their family home, which bathes the children in perfectly calculated natural light, wooded scenery, and idyllic bodies of water. The private relationships between Mann and her children are made tangible in the openness and vulnerability of the photographs. Many of the early images in Immediate Family show her children sleeping and often naked — a striking work entitled The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude (1987), exists simultaneously as a public artwork and as a private marking of time, a sign of growth and a loss of innocence. The way in which the images encircle the viewer into Mann’s private familial space is marked by voyeuristic undertones. The debut of Immediate Family in the early 1990s was met with skepticism and controversy; in her use of images of her children nude, hurt, or sleeping, Mann’s work was incorrectly read to have pornographic undertones. While the art-historical discourse surrounding her work may not have been enough to justify her incendiary photographs to American audiences twenty years ago, Mann’s solo show at the Photographer’s Gallery, her first in the UK, openly address the sexuality and interiority of her children within a broader narrative that points to the classical and Victorian references of her compositions.
The Photographer’s Gallery has chosen not to show Immediate Family in a chronological hang, which is both refreshing and jarring. The body of work is composed of ten years of sequential progression, yet by hanging the photographs in an order that pays attention to aesthetics rather than temporality, the photographs take on a sort of ‘start-stop’ motion. As we move from image to image, her children move backward and forward in time: The timelessness of this arrangement prevents the viewer from experiencing a linear development, and in turn, asks us to focus on Mann’s treatment of form, light, and landscape in addition to and as a compliment to her subjects.
Faces, a project completed in the early 2000s, exemplifies Mann’s interest in early photographic processes and art-historical portrait conventions. The body of work was created using antique cameras and the wet-plate collodion process, created in 1851 and known for its distinctive contrasts and extreme delicacy — with an exposure time of five minutes comes a sensitivity to light and miniscule movements. Mann produced much of this work outside, using the back of her truck as a make-shift dark room. The dust and dirt that ends up on the wet plates throughout the development process lends the images a gritty Dustbowl aesthetic, highlighting freckles, grime, and smudged skin.
In Faces, Mann continues to use her children as her subjects. Jesse, Emmett, and Virginia are shot in extreme close-up and in various states of focus, marred and damaged by the dirt and bubbles of the emulsion. The surface scars become an additional skin layer, dating the children and creating a corollary to Dustbowl and Victorian portrait imagery. Faces can be understood as a study of how the familiar, contemporary expressions of her children are altered and made atemporal by the creative process. In using a long-established photographic practice to document modern life, Mann continues to work with the connections between her subjects’ youth and the grand historical weight of her artistic method.
Mann’s photographs are characterized by a sense of temporality and value drawn from their ties to an overarching art historical narrative. Transcending the lines between family portraits, documentation, and intellectual photographic studies, Mann captures immediate emotions in her children while creating images that are universal, relatable, and delicately beautiful. She invites the viewer to enter a space where she is not only an artist with aesthetic and historical intentions, but a mother seeking to communicate with and record the lives of her family members.
SALLY MANN: “THE FAMILY AND THE LAND”
PHOTOGRAPHER’S GALLERY, LONDON
16 – 18 Ramillies St.
June 18 – September 19