Through her interest in memorial sites and daily life, the American photographer Sally Mann has sublimated the question of memory in photography. The Jeu de Paume in Paris presents a vast retrospective of her work.
The exhibition features a series of images which speak to the importance of the past in Sally Mann’s work and show how much her life is intertwined with the environment in which she grew up. These photographs are entitled Two Virginias: Virginia Mann, the photographer’s daughter, poses next to Virginia Carter, the photographer’s black nanny. Sally Mann thus brings together a child and an elderly woman—her own daughter and the person who used to coddle her when she herself was a child. The historical legacy of racial relations and slavery in America informs the photographer’s work, especially in view of Virginia Carter’s African American heritage. Sally Mann addresses the tragic history of the U.S. in her powerful, evocative photographs, for example in the images taken in Civil War battlefields. The photographer visited these sites over a hundred years after the events in order to commune with wandering souls and find ghostly traces on the ground… The artist used early photographic methods, such as the collodion process popular in the nineteenth century. This lends a certain matt texture to her images, which seem as if veiled over and tinged with black that prevents one from seeing clearly, from fully entering the picture. A similar effect is created in the images of rivers and bayous—sites where runaway slaves would come to hid but also where they often died. The same opaque filter is applied to Mann’s views of African American churches built shortly after the Civil War: this technique shelters us from the brutal reality and invites us to dream.
Intergenerational transmission of values
A little further on, the exhibition showcases photographs featuring the bodies and faces of Sally Mann’s family circle. For example, she portrays her husband, Larry, who suffers from muscular dystrophy. She compares him to the Greek god Hephaestus who was cast out from Olympus for his deformity. Mann also photographs her daughters, creating elegant portraits in which the girls’ faces are only partially visible. The photographs evoke reflections on life and death, the passage of time, and elusive memory, quivering like a flame.
The first part of the exhibition—which could also serve as the conclusion—includes photographs of Sally Mann’s children. These are her masterpieces which first brought her to public attention. Over the course of ten years, she photographed her three children: Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia. All the portraits are very uninhibited and poetic. While some show nudity—which sparked some controversy—it is only to evoke the innocent and untamed character of childhood, free of concerns about the gaze of others and unspoiled by sexuality. The portraits of children are above all a beautiful testimony to intergenerational transmission of values. Sally Mann plays with her maternal feelings: for example, she photographs one of her daughters sleeping with an alligator lurking close by. Be reassured, however, the beast is inflatable… Nevertheless, this photograph speaks to a mother’s anxiety in the face of her child’s insouciance. Another image shows one of her daughters wearing the same white dress the photographer had worn as a child and which was passed down from her grandmother… Or yet the photograph of Sally’s husband, Larry, showing him shave by the river while his daughter looks on… Or yet the one in which her son seems to be sick of being photographed and looks back at his mother with reproachful eyes… Or, lastly, the one in which Emmett’s nose bleeds on his chin and neck… These are the ravages of an untamed life, which, however, is filled with just as intense joy of living.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Sally Mann, A Thousand Crossings
June 18 to September 22, 2019
Jeu de Paume, 1 Place de la Concorde, 75008 Paris