Blackpaint 157

Sally Mann – the Family and the land

As promised yesterday,  the show at the Photographers’ Gallery.  There is an excellent review by Sean O’ Hagan in the Observer which is no doubt online, but make sure you read mine as well.

It’s in four parts; two parts are pictures of her children, one is of Southern landscape and the last of corpses in a Tennessee forensic research “body farm”.  All the pictures are B &W, all taken on an antique camera and on some, imperfections in the developing process have been left in. 

The downstairs area contains huge close-up pictures of the children’s faces.  They were taken, like all the pictures, on a large antique box affair which was fixed in position above a table or board on which the children lay, looking upwards.  The faces fill the picture; no head outline.  The edges are ragged, torn and the paper has bubbled here and there.  The children are called, Virginia, Emmett and Jessie – the last is a girl, I was surprised to find, since her features are sharp, wild and boyish in these pictures.  In one of the pictures, the heavily freckled child’s eyes are closed, lids and lips appearing slightly darkened and swollen and the effect, for me, is of a death mask.  I was surprised to hear Mann say in the film that the faces, to her, seem full of life and hope.  They (apart from the death mask) could equally be seen to express resentment, aggression or fear, I think.

Upstairs, there are another dozen or so pictures, of the kids playing and posing in the Virginia woodlands and riversides.  They are formally beautiful, evoke Victorian images and have a sinister edge to them.  More often than not, the kids are naked and have knowing, even arrogant or challenging expressions.  In Perfect Tomato, a nude ballet dancer does steps on a picnic table.  Jessie at 9 is about to dive, naked, from a rock.  Approach of Alligator has the youngest girl “asleep” while a toy alligator appears to have emerged from the creek in the background. 

There are two images, however, which are most disturbing.  The first, entitled The Terrible Picture, shows the youngest girl looking as if she is hanging from a tree.  The second, entitled Candy Cigarette, shows the two girls, dressed for once, in casual poses, the older one staring at the camera,  a cigarette poised in her fingers.  The younger, hands on hips, has her back to the camera, watching her brother in the distance, blurred, up a ladder it appears.

The combination of the pose, the expression and (especially) the cigarette sends a dubious message, I think.  Maybe it’s my corrupted mind and no doubt others will see only a couple of lovely kids pretending to be adults.  I find it edgy, anyway. 

The question to me about these pics (and to the American teacher, lecturing the big party of teenage students while I was there) was how much has Mann posed the kids and how much is the result of  the kids posing themselves?

Deep South is southern countryside – Spanish moss, mist, rivers, decaying trees, gates, columns, those fantastic swamp trees tha tent out at the bottom.  Civil War echoes, death,  decay….

What Remains is – well, the remains.  A gaping, parchment-covered skull, frizz of hair, shiny, satin/oilskin rumpled shoulder and chest skin.  Next, a fleshy, bulging stomach and breast, not far gone; a man’s(?) body, on face, big ulcer things on limbs and trunk, like the woman Torrance hugs in “the Shining”; a close up decayed face, wispy hair,  remarkable orange-peel shoulder; lastly, head, neck and trunk of a man  face down, cork-like skin, deep cracks or wounds like stab wounds?  No chance here of anyone recognising a relative (See last blog).

The family pictures were by far the most interesting and disturbing – that seems to be the adjective of choice (see O’Hagan).  Great exhibition, free too; beautiful images that you won’t forget in a  hurry.  Haunted by death and decay; in the film, she referred to “the sanctification of the land by the presence of death.”



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