Some of you may have noticed that the HPL has been doing a lot of eating out recently (fulfilling the “Connect” rule easily and gaining several pounds) but I haven’t been stringent enough about the “Learn” rule which says I have to go to one cultural event/class a month. I realised I was missing that creative stimulus, so this month I’ve been good. I’ve booked to see some comedy (Simon Amstell @ Soho Theatre); I saw Money @ Shunt last night with Esmerelda – my up-for-anything cultured friend (blog post coming soon); I’m looking into courses at City Lit and the School of Life (yes yes “looking into” isn’t exactly “doing” but hey…); and I even managed to squeeze in an hour at the Sally Mann exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in Soho between leaving work and heading to the pub on Friday. The latter shows these things needn’t be planned or take up too much time, and you can smugly tuck into your pint guilt-free and full of thoughts on life and art and the world.
I like the Photographers’ Gallery. It does interesting exhibitions, is filled with arty types and has a nice café and shop. Its right by Oxford Street so perfect for post-or-mid-shopping culture breaks. Oh and it’s free. I previously went to see the Jim Goldberg exhibition there which I loved, and then I read this Guardian article about Sally Mann’s “The Family and the Land” exhibition and wanted to go.
Candy Cigarette, 1989, from Immediate Family © Sally Mann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
The exhibition is controversial in its portrayals of children and death. The pictures of Mann’s children came first. They are beautiful photos – I loved her technique of using antique cameras so the photos had minute detail, with faded and scratched areas surrounding the focus. I could see where the controversy arose – some of the photos were intimate or provocative enough to make me feel slighly uncomfortable. But when I looked more, I saw beauty and innocence and a childlike showing off (when I was 6, I put yoghurt pots up my t-shirt, wore my mum’s high heels and strutted round the garden like Marilyn Monroe – someone somewhere still has the photos to prove it). These children were having fun being photographed and were perfect dolls – streamlined without the weight of puppy fat and dimpling, beautiful and unblemished and proud. I felt sad that today’s world means we can’t look at photos like this anymore without feeling uneasy and that probably Mann would never have taken the more intimate photos nowadays.
More than that, Sally Mann is a mother and these are her children – you are lucky witness to the intimate moments between them. Like any mother, she was taking these photos as an homage to her children, a celebration of their shared features and perfection, and it was something they collaborated on, their “us time” together. She took close-up portraits of them when they were older (see photo below) and as she said in the documentary they show at the gallery, this was alone time they all cherished.
The documentary shows how simple and peaceful their life is – horses, dogs and goats in the woods of Virginia, cutting her husband’s hair on a chair outside the house. All very Little House on the Prairie, and the simplicity, calmness and beauty of this life resonates in her photos – she saw this in her children and surroundings, but it was the more sophisticated and cynical audiences of New York and London that saw something different.
Virginia #42, 2004, from the series Faces © Sally Mann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
At the end, in a back room, were her photos of death*. I didn’t think I’d be affected, but a photo of a man lying decomposing on the ground made me really emotional. Like many people who go there, it reminded me of someone close to me who died and how I felt about it all. The sad fact is that once someone dies, their body may look human but you can tell they have “gone” (to where is your own belief). The camera picked up a lock of his hair, which looked so human. And yet his face wasn’t – sorry to upset anyone but it was rotting into the ground. This was also strangely beautiful – literally seeing someone becoming one with nature I suppose. Again, its simple and natural – for Mann, when we die, we disappear and nothing is left but nature. This is another taboo – its easier not to face this harsh reality but instead to think of afterlives and heavens and ghosts – what she is showing us is what really remains here. Again, its sad that people find this so contoversial (you see in the documentary a New York exhibition cancelling at the last minute) – these are not easy photos to look at but its a crazy world we live in where we avoid thinking about natural everyday issues like death and birth and children.
Untitled WR Pa 59, 2001, from the series What Remains © Sally Mann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
The exhibition is on from now until 19 September 2010, admission free. All photographs used with kind permission of The Photographers’ Gallery, London.
* Update: I realise I deleted a paragraph from this post to shorten it – but the para explained where these death photos are from. Mann visited the University of Tenessee’s research facility which uses dead bodies to study their natural decomposition. They take the bodies and leave them amongst nature – in woods and fields – and monitor the bodies’ natural decomposition process. Its is these bodies that Mann photographed.