As we continue our focus on identity and place in photography, specifically as it relates to the South and southern artists, we can’t exclude a discussion about Sally Mann, and certainly can’t overlook her five part photographic project, What Remains. The first time I saw What Remains, a beautiful group of photographs on death and memory and the southern landscape, was at Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta. The gallery is a little converted cottage on a wooded street nestled in the heart of the city, and despite its busy surroundings it is a silent place where the only sounds are the creaks and pops the hardwood floor makes as patrons walk in the small rooms and through the gabled passages of the space. I’d like to paint the memory of this particular visit as one made during a typical southern day – hot, oppressingly humid, quiet, with the sun just in that certain position in the sky where it punches orange and yellow blazing beams through the thick canopy of leaves in the trees. But I can’t really say it was that way. I have no real recollection of the time of the year, only an impression that was made more by place and image than anything else. And that’s the thing about great pictures – they can generate or supplant feeling, replace memories, or act as markers of memories that you might have never remembered in the first place.
So goes Sally Mann’s work. It manages to express a sense of loss without explicitly communicating what was lost, and defines a place in a way that a fuzzy memory makes a place you hardly know feel like home. Mann’s pictures hold a tangible, yet invisible, weight and sing the sweet romance and melancholy of the southern gothic. She says, “When I am in the pastures making my own images it is the light that leads into suspended time. The photographs created there in that oneiric warp embrace time and memory and become the still point at which they intersect. As always, that stillness brings longing and a dizzying, time-unraveling spiral into the radical light of the American South.” A few years ago Mann visited the Corcoran for a screening of a film that documented the What Remains work, and during the Q&A that followed the film she said something, almost in passing, that I found quite profound and really freeing. “As a southerner, you’re given the freedom to be romantic,” she said. I like that. While we study and look at art history and try to shape our artwork through a myriad of philosophies, histories and contexts, I like that she is a bold proponent to just being who you are, to following what comes natural according to the place you come from.
Check out an excerpt from the film “What Remains” where Mann talks about the landscape and memory and her use of the Collodion process:
Also, if you haven’t seen the monograph for What Remains, you can take a look at it at school, as Ill have it available for you to check out from my flat file starting Friday.