Children, trees and faces: under the spell of Sally Mann

Exhibitions I regret not having seen, last year? Too many. Anish Kapoor, Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari in London, for instance. Pipilotti Rist in Rotterdam. And of course: Venice’s Biennale. Just because I didn’t want to have to add an extra name to that list, I quickly drove to Den Haag on one of the last days of 2009 to see Sally Mann ‘s exbition at the Fotomuseum. I sure was happy to have spent some time amid the hauntingly beautiful pictures of this renowned American photographer. Happy New Year. Thanks for sticking with me and my Utopia Parkway.

What got me hooked, was What remains, a fascinating documentary on the life and work of Sally Mann (58), by Steven Cantor. In that documentary Mann – named America’s best photographer by Time magazine in 2001 – talks about the controversy surrounding some of her work (some people didn’t like Mann taking pictures of her – often naked – children). You see her taking pictures with that gigantic old camera she uses, and you see her roaming the premises of a forensic study site, looking for the beauty in dead bodies. And you see her tears when an exhibition of new work, one that she had worked on for many years, is cancelled because her gallery is quite sure they won’t be able to sell any of Mann’s pictures about death and decay.

It was funny to see that many people watching that documentary in the entrance hall of the Fotomuseum, just before they were going to visit Mann’s exhibition The family and the land. But it’s a nice proof of how a good documentary can make someone’s work even more fascinating. Cause fascinating they surely are, those large black-and-white pictures of Sally Mann. They are always shown in series. Because that’s how Mann works: Immediate family (1992) is a series of photographs of her family, Deep south (1999) are landscapes of Louisiana and Mississippi, What remains (2003) is a study of mortality and love.

What makes these pictures so enthralling is a combination of things; apart from Mann’s keen eye and her technical skills, of course. They almost look like paintings, to begin with. Their large format adds to giving that impression. There’s a sort of romantic quality to them as well, due to the almost antique way they look. But what is most peculiar is that in the end Mann succeeds in tapping into a subconscious level. These pictures are about big themes and the great mysteries of life: love, death, (im)mortality and some sort of spirituality. You feel that there’s more to them than what Mann is showing you.

The last room of the exhibition in Den Haag just had nine, large close-ups of the faces of  her children. While I was sitting there, on a bench, those blurry, staring faces had a strange effect on me. Eery and unsettling at first; calming afterwards. Not unlike the feeling I remember I had, a long time ago, when I was looking for the first time at Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals at London’s Tate Modern.

Sally Mann’s exhibition in Den Haag closes on January 10. Info here. For more about Sally Mann, check Art:21, the PBS-site about artists in the twenty-first century, with slide shows and interviews, or Gagosian, her New York gallery.


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