A Portrait of a Photographer as an Artist - The Flesh and the Spirit by Sally Mann


Book Reviews


What I’m really interested in when I look at photography is art. A photographer might take photographs of her children to talk about her family. An artist takes photographs of her children to talk about the human condition. A photographer might take photographs of a particular region to portray it, mostly for the sake of the people living there. An artist takes photographs of a particular region to ultimately produce images of no particular region other than the one that we all share, regardless where we live. A photographer might stick to that tried, old method and produce the same photographs, using the same style, for many years. An artist will not shy away from experimentation - and the potential of astounding success, at the risk of sometimes even more astounding failure. (more)

Sally Mann clearly is such an artist. When asked about a retrospective of her work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, she rejected the idea. A little back and forth between the museum and the artist then resulted in “an in-depth study of the role of the body in her work,” now available in book form as The Flesh and The Spirit (the quote is taken from the acknowledgments).

I’m tempted to compare Sally Mann’s approach to photography with Thomas Ruff’s. Such a comparison probably strikes most people as utterly ludicrous. But the many superficial differences aside, what unites Mann and Ruff is their dedication to the image, using whatever it takes to get it. Ruff has never shied away from employing digital technologies, up to the point of not even taking the photographs himself any longer. Mann has focused on the extreme opposite, working with all kinds of archaic photographic processes (incl. the use of very old, uncoated lenses). What matters, of course, are the images. Just like talking about computers and/or Photoshop misses the point of what Ruff is after, I feel that focusing on the fact that in Mann’s case we are looking at photographs produced with, say, collodion wet plates also does not do the artist much, if any justice.

In other words, I am not interested in the considerable technical expertise needed by both Sally Mann and Thomas Ruff to produce those images. This doesn’t mean I do not appreciate it for what it is; but at the end of the day, I want to look at art. In the same way, I am not interested in whether a writer uses a typewriter, a fountain pen, or Microsoft’s Word, just like I don’t care about what brushes and oil or acrylic paints a painter used.

You’re probably not supposed to write this in a review, but I will happily admit that I don’t like all of Ruff’s or Mann’s work. Some of it is so fantastic that every time I look at it it’s almost as if I was seeing it for the very first time. Some of it I find… well… let’s just call it flawed. But here’s the thing, in both Mann’s and Ruff’s case even the most flawed work makes it obvious that we are in fact in the presence of an accomplished artist. The human condition again: We cannot possibly succeed in everything we do.

Failure (we might argue it’s not even true failure) is also part of art - something we forget too often when we compare some photographer’s new work with that one body of work that we love so much. As understandable as this might be, how can we do that? Do we really want to hang all that weight on her or him? Could we ourselves always live up to our finest moments? Furthermore, who is to say that what at a first glance might fall short of some fine moment, seen outside of that context might not be a completely different, a new fine moment?

What point is there in art that is supposed to behave like, for example, an iPod, with each new model being the same, except very slightly different?

I do not want to make it sound as if Mann’s (or Ruff’s) work is filled with failure. On the contrary. But some work I like much better than some other work. Leafing through The Flesh and The Spirit had me think what I was doing when I dismissed the work that I didn’t like, thinking here the artist had clearly failed. Better to take that work for what it is.

As I mentioned above, as a retrospective The Flesh and The Spirit differs from those standard retrospectives we are being exposed to so often. The book does not present a “best of.” Instead, it samples Sally Mann’s work over the years, using the human body as a tracer, including previously unseen work.

This is bold. It allows us to make new connections, to find new meaning in the work.

Before going into any details, I want to make another comment about this particular artist (needless to say, I am writing the following based on my own personal background, as someone who came to the US only a decade ago). It was probably inevitable that Mann’s problems in the early 1990s would have to be mentioned, during what people like to call “the culture wars.” I suppose speaking in some sort of historical capacity this makes sense. But then again the “culture wars” had very little to do with actual culture, and a lot with bigotry and ugly politics. Does talking about this particular period really make so much sense any longer? Aren’t we acknowledging that bigotry yet again, by bringing it up, instead of letting it rest? Isn’t the fact telling us something that there is a major show of Sally Mann’s work - and this publication - right now, while many of the zealots are long forgotten? It is true, there are new zealots and new bigots right now; the political body seems to be unable to shake recurring “culture wars” just like the human body, once infected with herpes, will never be able to get rid off it again. But we need to realize that art (and especially great art) is unbesmirchable, and it will stand - even though its makers might suffer, often considerably.

The Flesh and The Spirit contains images from Family Color, taken with a medium-format camera, instead of the vastly more well-known images from Immediate Family. Replacing those famous photographs with the way less well known ones is a yet another bold move - and it works tremendously well, in many different ways. If you are familiar with the b/w work, you will be surprised how well the colour work stands up to it.

There is another case, where you get to compare two versions of the same body of work: Matter Lent, images of decomposing human corpses on the grounds of the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center. I prefer the colour images. One image, a close-up of a man’s face (or actually what’s left of it), is available in two almost identical versions. The colour one is stellar, you can see the maggots crawling over what used to be the face. The curtain of death has been pulled back, to expose the man behind it. The b/w one, while probably still being way too gory for most people, transforms the fact of death into abstraction, the maggots are a barely visible blur.

The landscapes in the book are a - the sole - diversion that doesn’t quite fit in - and coincidentally, that’s the work that I’ve always liked the least. In this context, the relation to the body seems just too strenuous. The rest of the photography is simply stellar. There are many images I had never seen before, including self portraits, both of the artist’s upper torso and of her own face - the latter reproduced as a grid of images (parts of the grid are visible on the dust jacket). This work needs to be taken in, it needs to be seen and re-seen.

Beautifully printed and produced The Flesh and The Spirit clearly sets a new benchmark for artist retrospectives. Highly recommended.

The Flesh and The Spirit, photography by Sally Mann, text/essays by John Ravenal, Anne Tucker, David Levi Strauss, 200 pages, Aperture/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2010