Monday, April 7, 2014

The intimate side of photography, exploring Sally Mann

The Canvas

Recently, (in lieu of examining the artwork submitted to the Junction) I had been inspired to revisit the work of visual artist, Sally Mann. Her work is perennial as some of her photography lies in permanent collections for viewing at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. Mann is also represented by the Gagosian Gallery and Edward Houk Gallery in New York.

Mann’s career in photography spans from the late in seventies to the present. She has produced a series of southern landscapes that appear gothic and surreal (her influence stems from her home state, Virginia), but she is most notably and controversially famous for capturing alluring images of her family. Because her work is extensive and contemplative, I will review three of her images that I find the most captivating and intimate.

This photograph is from her collection of southern landscapes appropriately titled, “Deep South.” Mann captures an idyllic backdrop of one of the most remote places in the south, the rural town of Lexington, VA. The image seems to incite a mood of an intense solitude, yet there is so much at play. There’s a bridge that invites the viewer to imagine oneself crossing the vast stygian river that creeps below. Then the reflection of the bright sky contrasted to the pitch black suggests an opening that extends far beyond the deepness of the river. As if the only way to ascend into an Elysian realm is to travel far below into complete and utter darkness. Finally, on the far left bottom corner, the droplets of an unknown chemical takes the viewer out of the landscape and into the realm of looking at the whole image for its photographic components. I find that this slight flaw in the photograph is what makes it extremely beguiling. It gives the effect of contemplation between what is real and not real; although the image is of a real place, it has a sense of surrealism. Also, it invites viewers to examine nature in an unrefined state. 

The next photograph is from her Proud Flesh series. Here you have an image of a man’s arm with his hand into a fist pressing down on a table with an unidentifiable object near him. 

The hue that illuminates his fingers touching his palm is the focal point in the image, leaving the viewer to decipher the out of focus background with their imagination. When you look closer, you see that the man is naked, he’s all flesh here—in his rawest form. There’s something vulnerable in the bareness of his skin, yet the lines and curves of his body look roughened. The way his body is positioned seems to represent the dichotomy of immobility and action—although his fist is still, it is clenched and signifies an undertaking.

Finally, the last portrait is of her three children and I consider it one of her most captivating and intimate of all her images.
What seems to draw the viewer in is the fact that her children are without the protection of garments. Their bare chests are susceptible to their surroundings, indicating a vulnerability and a raw state of existence. When the photographs were released in the 80’s there was a backlash to her work that suggested that she had used her children in a pornographic light. Without question there is something evocative about the children's stance, but the image also invites a conversation about what is pure and innocent. The expressions on the children’s faces show them looking into the camera, rather confidently; their mother takes a picture of them and they are forever immortalized in their state of youth. Not often can some people imagine children having the capability of being serious, but that is what is alluring in the photograph. Their youth and innocence is a sort of intensity within their own realm. Mann once stated that, “most of the pictures I take are of the things I love, the things that fascinate and compel me, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to look at or take.” Perhaps why the image is not entirely inviting is that the viewer is genuinely observing an intimate setting of another person's life. The structure of the photograph, much like the previous one, contrasts the sharp frontal details with the out-of-focus imagery in the back. Mann has been known to use this technique extensively, which forces the viewer to focus on what she wants them to focus on, and in this image, it is her children. Perhaps what stems behind Mann's influence in this portrait of her children is the preservation of a physical aspect of them which starts to fade away once the shutter of the camera clicks. Every moment with them is crucial in this setting and Mann is cherishing it in the most elegant way possible.

These are just some images in her extensive and captivating photography. I believe Sally Mann’s body of work is stunningly detailed and hard to look at sometimes. Her imagery seems to evoke a deep, emotional intensity and a certain element of disturbance, which is why I am perhaps drawn to it.

          -Ninoska Granados

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