Review by Gerhard Clausing •
This photobook is based on a retrospective exhibition previously shown at the National Gallery of Art, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Getty Museum, currently showing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, and soon to be at the Jeu de Paume, Paris (June 17 to Sept. 22, 2019) and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (Oct. 19, 2019 to Jan. 12, 2020). The exhibition and book are a collaboration – curators/editors Sarah Greenough, Sarah Kennel, and Julie Warnement, and others.
The exhibition as well as this book allow us a superb view of life in the “deep South” of the United States. Sally Mann needs no introduction – she has published a number of singularly fascinating books over several decades. We have been privileged to view her children’s early years as if we were on location as invited members of the family, with her children most respectfully and joyfully shown. We were also able to share the process of aging as observed in regard to her husband and others. Those who saw ill intent in those projects might wish to examine what fears and narrow definitions are holding them back. Each of us has one human body, unclothed and blameless in its natural state, and a skilled observer who documents our natural development photographically is to be celebrated, not chastised.
Here Sally Mann integrates her personal and professional observations in a historical context that is multi-faceted – she not only includes photographs from many decades of her own family history, but also applies historical photographic processes (especially collodion) to the Southern landscape and portraits to make some of the major conflicts more imaginable (Civil War battlefields, the vulnerability of African-Americans, the raising of white children by black nannies). She also does not shirk from discussions of the absurdities that some of that history engendered – the proximity yet separation of racial groups, the injustices of various kinds that were perpetrated.
The plates are beautifully printed with various tones as appropriate to the subjects and moods. The book is divided into five sections: Family – The Land – Last Measure – Abide With Me (= “coming to terms with the history into which I was born”) – What Remains. I have reproduced one or two double pages from each section below. Both the landscapes and the portraits show the utmost awe and respect of all individuals and share a universality that is enhanced by old photographic techniques applied from a contemporary viewpoint. The landscapes, which have an especially heavy impact, allow us to share the area’s natural beauty against the background of its history, as well as some of its culture (such as old African-American churches).
This work is an important contribution to our understanding of what has been inherited from those before us; it also ties together past and present, and serves as encouragement to be more constructive in the future. The images remind us of transience and timelessness, of the need for tolerance and collaboration. The essays thoroughly document Sally Mann’s working methods as well as curatorial considerations and some of the background against which we might interpret this fabulous body of work.
This photobook is a masterpiece; both the exhibition and the book are highly recommended!
The PhotoBook Journal previously featured a review of Sally Mann’s The Flesh and the Spirit.
Photographer: Sally Mann (American, born and lives in Lexington, Virginia)
Essays: Sarah Greenough, Sarah Kennel, Drew Gilpin Faust, Hilton Als, Malcom Daniel
Hardcover book with illustrated dust cover, sewn binding; 320 pages, 115 plates (duotone and color), captions and pagination; diverse additional documentary photographs; 11 x 11 ¾ inches; printed in the United States by Brilliant Graphics, Exton, Pennsylvania.
Photobook designer: Margaret Bauer