It’s taken six years for Sue Breary, manager and curator of the gallery in the Putney School’s new Michael S. Currier Art Center, to mount the show she has so ardently wanted to since the building’s inception: the photographs of Sally Mann, Putney School alumnus. Since 2004, when the artist was first contacted for a show in which 90 alumnus were featured, Breary had been intermittently in touch with Mann. She had nine photographs in that show.
“It is so important to get good work in front of students’ eyes,” said Breary, “and Sally Mann is one of the best.” Also, Breary has been teaching in France in the Fall, for the past two years, and so, she said, she came to Mann with some urgency, explaining “The time is now!” The two have developed something of a personal relationship which Breary clearly cherishes. She is awestruck, she said, by Mann’s “care and commitment,” and feels “She is one of those rare birds, a great artist and great teacher.” And by the fact that beauty is so important a part of what she does––“This is not always the hip thing,” in the current art climate, she asserts.
That relationship was strengthened by Mann’s agreeing to take a Putney student on as studio assistant during the school’s work term, something she had never done. “She does all her own printing,” says Breary. The student, senior Lydia Gorham, was thrilled, and they “hit it off”, says Breary.
Sally Mann has lived all her life in Lexington, Virginia. She has a farm there, only three miles from the house where she was born. Says Breary, who visited the farm half-way through Gorham’s stint, “There is beauty everywhere… she has an aviary, orchids, and a lot of art – art is everywhere…large prints of her own photographs, and photographs of others. She designed the house herself. Her studio is amazing.”
Mann has said, in response to a question about her influences:
“Artistically, the influences that got into my bloodstream good and early were not, for the most part, photographs. They were paintings, books, and my father’s creations: his garden, and the sculptures and assemblages…To this day, I retain a passion for sculpture-the more ambitious the scale, the better. But, photographs? I guess, like every baby boomer, The Family of Man was the collection of images that first pierced my consciousness. That’s probably why I unashamedly have W.Eugene Smith’s Walk to Paradise Garden hanging in my living room.”*
Contemporaries whose work impressed her are cited as Richard Misrach, Linda Connor, Emmet Gowin, Eugene Richards, and Robert Frank-“all still in the pantheon of greats,” notes Mann.
Mann, whose work has sparked controversy, provoked something of a scandal back in her student days at Putney with a photograph of her roommate and her boyfriend in the woods “au naturale.” It reminded me of a teenage “Dejuener sur L’Herbe,” a painting by Manet which was itself a huge cause celebre in France in the 19th century. Manet painted several disrobed picnicers posed very casually, and that was considered an outrage to sensibilities of the day. It is now considered to have been a turning point for modern art.
Not that Mann’s (her name then, Sally Munger) photo is ground breaking, though it does seem to have shaken up a few administrators. But it is fresh and sensuous, and as unbowed and unashamed as youth itself. It is prominently displayed in Then and Now.
The show at the Currier Center has photographs from four series, including Mann’s senior project from Putney, exhibited for the first time since their student showing. The quality of the printing, the fascination with the play of darks and illumination, is already evident. They have a surprising narrative quality – “characters” seem to be posed in attitudes of contemplation, or bending toward one another in a kind of “mis en scene.” It was interesting to learn that Mann has a Master’s degree in writing, that photography “triumphed over writing for a practical reason-I was better able to earn my living at it and I needed a job!! Plus, photography is easier than writing-with photographs, you start out with a physical given, the world is before your lens and you are in a reactive/creative position.”*
The wall with the eight or so student photographs is shared with a series of images from “Proud Flesh,” shown in the Fall of 2009 at the Gogosian Gallery in New York. These are photographs of Mann’s husband, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis some years ago. The images have somehow been “scarified,” adding to their rough dark beauty. In response to my asking Mann about this aspect of the prints, she said they are the result of “woefully bad technique”, and in fact a YouTube video on the process points out all the places things can get fouled up. But, I believe, in the same way a painter doesn’t mean to have a drip fall just there, these blessed accidents are part of the miracle of the creative process.
Another thing about these photographs from “Proud Flesh,” is that there is so much compassion in them, the way a hand, both fragile and strong, is brought into focus, a back caressed with the lens, or a leg––thin, veins prominent––is shot at an awkward angle, creating in the viewer a parallel discomfit to the subject, conveying the sense that this is an odd thing we are caught in, known as a body, source of pleasure, source of pain.
A series of self portraits follows, dark and haunting. Mann’s face seems almost an apparition that materializes out of dark nothingness. Both the “Proud Flesh” and the Self Portrait series are shot on collodion glass plates. Of her choice to use this very antiquated process, which uses dangerous chemicals, Mann says: “I think I’ve always been drawn to antiquated methods. Years ago I did a lot of platinum printing, even bromoils. I’m not alone in this: nowadays, especially, we’re seeing a flight to the wild margins of photographic process. A reaction, I suspect, to what computers have done in the mainstream of photography. So many of the perennial challenges have been, suddenly, struck down. But photographers are used to photography being a maddeningly recalcitrant medium, and in a way we had depended on the recalcitrance. So here we are pursuing our defeated enemy into the hills, crying out: “Don’t leave us!”*
The last photographs gathered for this show are from the “What Remains” series. These photographs, here in color, but originally exhibited in black and white, were taken at a forensics research facility in Knoxville, Tennessee, where donated bodies are left in the elements to decompose. This supplies the Anthropological Research Facility information that enables crime labs to pinpoint dates of death at crime scenes. The black and white photos were published in a book of the same title; the series also gives its name to a must-see film on the life and art of Sally Mann. While these images are not easy, the more so for being in color, they are not sensational or morbid either. Perhaps it is their very matter of factness that makes them disturbing. They remind me of the Buddhist monks that are made to go to the “charring fields” where corpses lie, in order to learn the lesson that all phenomenon is ephemeral…a radical reminder in our society. These are brave studies and by exhibiting them Mann bids us share in that courage, the courage to look. Somehow there is great trust in that. It is the first time these color photographs have been exhibited.
Sally Mann will be speaking at the Putney School on Friday, May 14th at 8:00 p.m. Her talk is open to the public.
*from an interview for The Oxford American.