On the sublime in Sally Mann, the painful reminders of Nan Goldin, and the impossibility of understanding the past.Image from Flickr John Ramspott
By Andrew Rose
The stakes are high in photography. Candid snapshots by the paparazzi, provocative nudes, freaks—the photographer, like the journalist, is always selling somebody out. In the quest to remember, she must peel away a layer of waking life to make a photograph. The authenticity of subject replaces the authenticity of a physical artifact in photography. With an endlessly reproduced medium we have lost Walter Benjamin’s “aura,” so the artist must work to replace the awe we feel in the presence of a work of art with an awe we feel merely by viewing it.
Sally Mann’s work demonstrates the intimacy and trust involved in making a photograph, in manufacturing awe; her Family Pictures (1984-1991) show her children as intense, self-assured, and no doubt in full possession of their mother’s piercing intellect. Those pictures also show a photographer’s ability to understand the value of children as naturally desirous of the sublime. One photo shows an endless expanse of tree-lined water, with the sun reflecting off the foreground where Mann’s son—naked and submerged from the waist down—disturbs the silken lake and looks accusingly at the camera. Such pictures evoked strong negative reactions when they were first exhibited, overshadowing Mann’s talent and numinous style. She addresses this in her new memoir, Hold Still. Several family pictures depict Mann’s children completely nude, and Mann—whose children consented to the use of these photos in the 1992 book—defended them as documents of her life, devoid of sexual connotation. Despite Mann’s purity of artistic intent, her work raised the ugly specter of those who purport to defend the innocence of children, and the terrifying threat of those who would defile that innocence for their own pleasure.
For many, a photograph is meant to be a physical manifestation of a memory, fundamentally immutable and permanent, even when digital. The magic of photography is its ability to capture reality in living detail. Like Sally Mann, Nan Goldin uses her camera as a tool to create a record, to remember everything as it happened. Pictures of Mann’s naked children and pictures of Goldin’s family/friends in their personal squalor, or Goldin’s own face with an eye blackened by a lover, insist that the sometimes painful intimacy of daily life be represented unfiltered. Goldin writes in the introduction to her classic work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, that, “There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to a party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history.” The photographer may not be a voyeur, but she is certainly a careful editor; film or JPEGs seem to be realistic representations of their subjects, but of course the photographer’s eye is the final arbiter of which reality will be presented as the definitive one.
We shoot photos, we capture them because memory is fickle and time is always slipping away from us.
Mann’s sensitive, moody, and often enchanting photos of her children are laden with their confident, mutually respectful relationship. But once the family pictures opened to the public, Mann learned that there were spectators who had a different interpretation of her photos. In Hold Still she defends her work and describes the many hateful letters she received after a piece about the photos entitled “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann,” appeared in the New York Times Magazine (to which she responded, in advance of this book, twenty-three years after the article was published). “Looking back on that tumultuous decade, during which the skirmishes of the culture wars spilled into my territory, I have come to appreciate the dialog that took place,” writes Mann, “but at the time I occasionally felt that my soul had been exposed to critics who took pleasure in poking it with a stick.” However, this scandal is not the focus of her memoir; on the contrary, the book is an engrossing and tightly crafted exploration of her own emotional life, her relationship to her parents, her childhood, and a detailed, fascinating family history. In her memoir, Mann is continuing the intellectual spirit of her photography: she is examining the scene and trying to bring together all the disparate parts of her shot.
We shoot photos, we capture them because memory is fickle and time is always slipping away from us. Goldin writes that “Real memory… is an invocation of the color, smell, sounds, and physical presence, the density and flavor of life. Memory allows for an endless flow of connections. Stories can be rewritten, memory can’t. If each picture is a story, then the accumulation of these pictures comes closer to the experience of memory, a story without end.” We tell ourselves constantly evolving stories about who we are and what we’re doing; a photographer like Goldin—or Mann with her most candid, urgent family pictures—inserts herself into the scrum by natural circumstance and creates a permanent record of the event.
Sally Mann’s and Nan Goldin’s photos are sacred fetishes projected onto paper and liquid crystal.
Mann’s father, a physician, was obsessed with death. His office in her childhood home held innumerable folders filled with research on the subject: death in Sumerian culture, in Japan—death everywhere. Mann has inherited her father’s affinity for morbidity, and a recent project involved going to the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility to photograph naturally decomposing bodies. Her connection to the corpses is evident and visceral. Mann’s deft metaphors and organic prose translate coolly to observations about the bodies:
This unconcerned, straightforward attitude is typical of Mann’s sang-froid throughout her time at the Body Farm, but she is rattled by a new resident whose cause of death was unknown:
There is a break in Mann’s self image when she moves from de-gloving a rotting corpse to handling the body of a man who died for no reason at all. The certainty of photography, of posing bodies and capturing their putrescence, is blown away by the specter of sudden death. For Mann there is a necessary, clinical distance from the subject of a photograph—even when it is her own child. When she cannot grasp the narrative, when the subject’s provenance is unknown, Mann’s hand—once steady behind her antediluvian view camera—tremors.
Sally Mann’s and Nan Goldin’s photos are sacred fetishes projected onto paper and liquid crystal. They give the photographer a measure of control over the exposition of her life. Indeed, the very act of taking a picture is a powerful statement about one’s intentions toward the world. In 1973, Susan Sontag wrote in the New York Review of Books:
Here Sontag describes the artistic intersection of Goldin’s unstoppable output of apparently random snapshots, snippets of time taken during Henri Cartier-Bresson’s fleeting “decisive moment”—where unpredictable reality meets artistic intent—as well as Mann’s painstakingly crafted and composed silver prints (many of the family pictures, she writes, were in fact captured with the same urgency of purpose Goldin brings to her subjects). This aggression that Sontag mentions is a function of the singularly ocular nature of the photographic medium. Nothing but a camera lens can claim to show us an inarguably accurate portrait of the past. An event, as Sontag has written, cannot truly take place if it is not photographed, and the ubiquity of photography and videography today has brought an immense influx of documentary evidence—be it in the form of cellphone video showing yet another murder of an unarmed black man, or in the countless surveillance cameras in public spaces all over the world. But neither Mann nor Goldin nor any photographer would credulously say that they are attempting verisimilitude, or that such a thing is even possible. So what are they trying to do? Both photographers are selecting and polishing to achieve a view of the past that conforms to their ideas about the present. Mann’s southern landscapes are moody in an inimitable way: neither wilting magnolias nor prurient documentation of lives best left unlived, but a shimmering portrait of tranquility laden with symbols and contradictions. Goldin’s work could also be dismissed or glossed over with interpretations depicting her style as a darkly sentimental recording of addicts and victims. As with Mann, however, there is something running deep beneath the surface of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. A heart-shaped bite mark, a nude pelvis displaying an ectopic pregnancy scar, Goldin’s own battered face—these images feel pitiful but their subjects cry “Do not pity me!” This is reality, brutal reality, Goldin tells us. Mann, too, is showing brutal realities—death, yes, but also the brutality of seeing within the innocence of children an unmistakable knowledge so painful—and often borne of wildly precocious intellect—we choose to believe it can only affect benighted adults, like the people Goldin photographs.
Looking through Mann’s photos from the Body Farm, one sees her practiced, intent eye, and its ability to distort its subjects through natural light and darkroom manipulation. Mann’s sometimes abstract yet entirely present shots of the naturally decomposing residents of the Body Farm show respect without sentimentality. One shot depicts a massively obese corpse lying prostrate with stomach and breasts in profile. Mann’s exposure and other chemical and optical decisions in this print show more of a granite edifice than what was once a person; trying to understand its heavy, inorganic lines and vanishing shadows, I was reminded of Georgia O’Keefe’s Ranchos Church, No. II, NM (1929). O’Keefe’s painting underlines the intersection and diversion of what we create, where we create it, and what it means to remember. Indeed, Ansel Adams also photographed that same church, showcasing his revolutionary command of light and shadow. Light must be manipulated in order to show us something new, something truer than what we see every day. All artists must learn to craft light to their will; nothing can be seen, no idea transmitted visually, without light. More than a dozen photos after such an imposing and demanding structure as the ecclesiastical corpse, Mann makes the decision to both undermine the artistry of her photos, and to support the reality that she presents. To bring us closer to death, to that profound fascination shared with her late father, Mann has to break the fourth wall of gauzy large format photography and let sunshine and color in. The last three pictures for Body Farm on her website are in vivid Fuji green. Photographed from behind, a body is bathed in moody sunlight, ensconced in twigs and trees, reminding us that this process of human decomposition is feeding the rich soil below. Our deaths do not end with a trip to the Body Farm, nor with an especially telling shot from a photographer—they end deep below the surface. If Mann’s message is “aggressive,” then she is a patient aggressor. She will follow her subject to the ends of the earth because once presented with the idea of death, it can never overcome other intellectual or artistic pursuits. Death is the ultimate, illusive subject; death is the original decisive moment.
Few artists can describe and defend their own work with the same elegance and conviction as Sally Mann. Some of the photographs that illustrate her memoir show us the visual logic behind her work, some represent vivid historical demarcations, and some just underscore the exuberance she brings to her own life. Mann explains the arduous road to making photographs that present the viewer with far more than just an aggressive expression of the photographer’s demanding vision. Mann and Goldin understand that the photographer’s work goes in two directions, and that the subject’s lack of control over the finished product does not make her ipso facto a victim of the photographer’s malice. When Sontag writes:
By denying the subject’s participation in a photograph, or by dismissing photography as an artistic medium, Sontag’s unbridgeable critical distance hardens her argument as she denies the photographer a measure of empathy. It is the thoughtful empathy of Hold Still that denies the cynical—or at best outdated—notion that photography is any more homicidal than oil portraiture. Reality is fickle, and all representations of the world around us can never be much more than the decisions of their creators. But to portray such work as necessarily craven and deceptive feels more like Woody Allen blathering on in Annie Hall about photography being a young medium with no established artistic criteria in order to impress his girlfriend than Sontag’s crisply argued jeremiads. The binary of reality versus callow depictions of one person’s viewpoint is false; art is a continuum from lived reality through to an artist’s perspective, and just as there is room for an infinite number of personal realities on earth, so too can we accept infinite depictions of reality as being valid, ingenuous, and often bracing in showing us a part of our world that we had forgotten, or never before acknowledged.
The viewer—for whom the photograph may be the only remaining link to someone long gone—must cope with the certitude that natural memories will eventually gel into a handful of moments, shot in fractions of a second.
Mann’s father looms mightily in this book. As close as she could have been to him, despite his many emotional disabilities, her memory of him is tainted. Her investigation into his life and their shared history yields the realization that the steamrolling eventuality of relying on photos as aides-memoires has had a devastating effect on her own memory:
What will happen to the memories Mann has preserved on paper? It seems that there’s no getting around being “sold out” by photography; it is not just the subject who’s privacy and animation have been appropriated, but the viewer—for whom the photograph may be the only remaining link to someone long gone—who must cope with the certitude that natural memories will eventually gel into a few moments, shot in fractions of a second. We treat our photographs like personality lifeboats: they are so precious because they contain the only legitimate documentation of a person’s existence. Transferring all of one’s photos to the cloud—like having a Flickr-brand vacuum cleaner vigorously digesting one’s ever-expanding “camera roll”—may expand the number of photographs from which we can choose to define ourselves, but it doesn’t resolve the problem of a medium that replaces history with representations of hand-picked moments in time.