‘I think it’s important but maybe it isn’t’ – Sally Mann’s ‘The Family and the Land’ at The Photographers’ Gallery

‘The Family and the Land’ by Sally Mann was the final show to be exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery before its year long closure which began in September this year, and it seems quite apt that the shutdown and refurbishment of the building tied in with a piece proportionately associated with death and vitality.

When I first discovered Mann’s work it was at a time when I was considering childhood as a social construct, and examining the idea that childhood as we interpret it in Britain might be disappearing as a result of various societal shifts and changes.  Perhaps obviously, I’ve found that photographic work (or music, or literature) is often easier to associate with if it is viewed in conjunction with another simultaneous or past thought or experience relevant to it, and it is maybe for this reason that I felt such an accord for Mann’s work at that time, and why I have returned to it on numerous occasions and for very different reasons since.

Upon entering The Photographers’ Gallery I was confronted by Mann’s 2004 series ‘Faces’, produced using the wet plate collodion process, and presented as dominant 109cm x 103cm enlargements within the space. Far from being uncomfortable or intimidated by the magnification of Mann’s children’s faces, the subjects of this body of work, I felt an uncanny familiarity with them, and a particular affinity for Virginia’s freckles. The thought occurred to me that if you intentionally or even passively follow celebrity gossip you essentially grow to feel like you know strangers because their faces and personas are familiar.  The fickle nature of ‘celebrity’ means this effect is both powerful and meaningless. I’ve intentionally looked at ‘Immediate Family’ a lot due to the significance that I place on this work, and in a similar manner I feel I ‘know’ Mann’s children without ever having been in their company.

Likewise when I was watching the 2005 documentary ‘What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann’ that played in a space connecting one area of the exhibition to another, I found myself thinking and caring about the fact that Virginia looks incredibly like her Father, and Jessie her Mother, which is something I usually only think about individuals that I am wholly familiar with, whose faces I know well because I have studied them while they have looked back at my own. Of course, I was aware that I was walking into a Mann exhibition, so inevitably these were the bodies and faces that I would be viewing, but this intense feeling of familiarity made me question the nature and complexity of intimacy, and how we experience it frequently and on numerous levels.

When ‘Immediate Family’ was first exhibited in 1992 it incited controversial claims that the images were exploitative and pornographic. I took the view that the problem lay with social attitudes and potentially the viewer rather than Mann herself, and that the ease with which critics claimed the work could be labelled as pornographic only emphasised this. I also felt that these criticisms arose partly from issues surrounding consent and intimacy, which I think links to the fact that Mann manages to challenge broad social concepts by examining the minutiae, an achievement (whether welcome or unwelcome) which continues throughout her more recent work included in this exhibition.

In addition to ‘Faces’ these works consist of ‘Deep South’ (1996 – 1998), a study of the effect of mass human death on selected pieces of land, which occurred during the American Civil War, and ‘What Remains’ (2000 – 2004), a piece based at the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, Knoxville, which examines the decomposition of dead human bodies in conjunction with the land they lie upon and within.

I found myself presented with two pieces of work that examine land that has experienced or experiences human death and decay for a specific purpose. Again we see Mann facing not only her own fears and concerns but also those fundamental to her culture. As she herself asserts, for example, ‘Americans are weird about death…they don’t want to see it as an organic part of life.’

In the same way as ‘Immediate Family’, the subject matter is in part very difficult to study. I find there’s something interesting, however, about the voluntary nature with which the bodies in question, or the suggestion of bodies, were committed to the land, which relates more broadly to my thoughts about consent and intimacy and the levels of ease with which we view the work.

I am very loosely assuming that when an individual commits to the potential consequence of death which may be caused through combat in war, a voluntary act is apparent. We might then assume that this and the voluntary nature of permitting one’s dead body to be used within a research programme both appear on various points of a spectrum of consensus. The individuals in question aren’t inevitably committing to photographs being produced of the site on which they might die (of which it is not necessarily their right), or to their portraits being made after death, but to me it seems that the images would feel very different if we were not aware of consent within these images being present on any level, albeit that the consent is unrelated to the production of the photograph. I think this is where the fundamental contention arose with ‘Immediate Family’ because firstly, consent was probably viewed as dubious where the guardian providing consent was the photographer herself, and secondly because the photographs balanced on a fine line of controversy, and so any future effects that their publication may have had on the children as subjects could not be predicted or anticipated with certainty. We can, however be certain that there will be no comeback from the subjects themselves in ‘What Remains’ or those who died on the land photographed in ‘Deep South’. Although to me the work becomes elusively compelling for this reason, it also makes them somehow easier to accept when considering the intimacy that we experience with the subjects or subject matter, because the identity of the individuals is not potentially infringed upon in the same way.

In ‘What Remains’ for example, the subjects were not formally photographed before their death with the intention of simultaneously displaying such images alongside this work, and so they have no visual living identity that the viewer can associate them with when dead. Similarly the connotative marks on the land in ‘Deep South’ compel an open narrative and contemplation as to the lives and suffering that once existed in this space. The curiosity therefore derives from that which existed before and the understanding that this knowledge will never be possessed, as opposed to the curiosity of who these individuals will become, and the potential ability to follow that which lies ahead of them.

The beauty, sorrow, intrigue, curiosity and complexity that Mann’s work holds compels me to return to it repeatedly, thereby ensuring that regardless of whether I’m studying her children or her deceased subjects, I know them yet they will always be strangers. This is because I know them only from my own perspective, not from a shared relationship, and I know them only through sight and through how these sights make me feel. When Roland Barthes was searching for his deceased Mother’s ‘truth’ amongst the photographs taken of her during her life he remarked, ‘I recognized her among thousands of other women, yet I did not “find” her. I recognized her differentially, not essentially.’ This assertion is made because Barthes had at that point only recognised his Mother in ‘fragments’ within images and had not distinguished her ‘being’. In contrast because I do not know the subjects intimately I will never be able to determine their ‘beings’ within the images. This does not occur through an abundance of knowledge of the individuals, but through a complete lack of knowledge. It appears therefore that I can meet Barthes’ belief in the middle from the opposite direction, because I too differentiate these subjects because of my familiarity with the fragments of them that I dounderstand. This is born purely out of sight and an empty physical relationship as opposed to a holistic understanding, thereby adding and contributing to the complexity of the intimacy we experience both within and surrounding our understanding of a photograph.

Here Mann also manages to profusely highlight one of the beauties of photography, in that through the ability to create a compulsion to return to these images the artist ensures that I also know Mann herself, yet she cannot be seen. She is as omnipotent within her pictures as the concept and reality of death. I think there is a complete appreciation on Mann’s part of the knowledge that something or things in life, whether tangible or intangible are beyond precious, and she possesses an ability to encapsulate the certainty that they will inevitably be lost; essentially that nothing lasts. Her work is therefore a true expression of the things her heart loves, sees, fears and feels, and expressing these emotions by capturing those closest to you through photography is, I think, admirably brave. Further by focussing on fundamental and controversial subjects Mann ensures that the work itself is precious, because we begin to question whether such work can and will ever be produced again due to the reaction it has incited, and the future possibility of unpredictable and capricious social reactions.

Indeed, Mann remarks herself that ‘The things that are close to you are the things that you photograph the best’ and during the 2005 documentary she is intensely humiliated and embarrassed when an exhibition which is meant to display this work is cancelled. In this instance she exclaims ‘I think it’s important, but maybe it isn’t.’ Possessing and investing so much faith in the things you’re passionate about is clearly both delightful and dangerous, where we see Mann’s heart being caught between a state of stability and instability depending on the faith and interest that she and others hold in the work.

There seems to be ongoing discourse in photography that discusses the benefits and detriments of photographing the local as opposed to the exotic, and vice versa. In June 2009 I attended a conversation between Tom Hunter and Martin Barnes in which Hunter stated,

I found actually that every story that I ever wanted, that I could ever imagine possible is happening all around me…It’s small moments in life which are so poignant that they become universal.

I think this is ultimately what makes Mann’s work so powerful for me, and it is essentially the reason why I am compelled to return to it. When she’s presenting a single dead body she’s also representing a profusion of dead bodies; when she looks introspectively at her own family she also focusses on aspects of multitudes of families; and the images of the effects of war on a specific site are relevant and resonant globally. Furthermore it seems to be that her belief in the way that she feels is so central and core to her work that her process is reflected in her subject matter and her subject matter in her process. For example, the refreshing imperfections that are produced during the wet plate collodion process seem to reflect her desire for realism and the recognition of beauty in the imperfections of life. She states, ‘I’m so worried that I’m going to perfect this technique someday.’ Even the dust and dead flies that are attracted to the plate speak of human and natural demise.

During the documentary Mann also asks herself how she would like to be seen through her work and what she would like to leave behind following her own death. We see that even through her photography she is concerned with a dignified presence when she is no longer in existence; something that we would usually associate with the production of a Will.

Mann’s work is interwoven and embedded with so many fundamental social and emotional issues, reflected through subjects that she holds close to her, that I find it difficult not to revisit it regularly in search of another answer or thought. Her manifest interest in death in life, as much as after death itself ensures that the work is continuously fundamental and compelling. In keeping with form her current and ongoing work is a study of her husband Larry, who has developed muscular dystrophy. It is hoped and anticipated that such imagery will display as much beauty and tragedy as have the rest of her photographs, and will continue to stir the discourse surrounding photographic practice through the visual representation of the one person with whom Mann herself is most intimate.