Many of you phantom readers out there know that I was headed to Richmond this weekend to meet Sally Mann. I was a bit, ahem, excited about it. The newly expanded and renovated (and totally gorgeous) Virginia Museum of Fine Art presented an exhibition of Sally Mann’s work. The exhibit is organized thematically around the body, and this theme naturally brings in other themes – mortality, aging, decay, trust, vulnerability. Sally Mann is one of Virginia’s most celebrated contemporary artists (I’m not so up on my famous contemporary Virginia artists, but I’d think she would be at the top of the list), and this exhibit was long overdue.
The Museum hosted an event on Saturday morning, described as a “conversation” with Sally Mann. Sally (we’re tight now, so I’ll be referring to her by her first name) rarely gives interviews or lectures, so hearing her speak was a treat. For the first hour of the program, we heard panelists John Ravenal (curator of the exhibit and head of contemporary art at the museum), Vince Aletti (music journalist and photography critic, photography reviewer for the New Yorker, formerly a senior editor for the Village Voice for nearly 20 years), and Brian Wallis (photography critic and chief curator for the International Center for Photography) discuss Sally’s work.
Their major point was that Sally plays on double meanings in her work and that riding that edge of ambiguity is what gives her work its punch. She uses powerful dualities: child/adult, sensual/innocent, living/dead, pastoral/haunting that mixed with disturbing details and uncomfortable moments create a strong impact for the viewer. She capitalizes on a fundamental quality of photography by using ambiguity to allow for multiple readings of an image. Photography seems to be a one to one representation of what occurs in the world, but there are actually many ways to interpret an image – Sally Mann has an acute sense of this and uses it to give her work its charge.
After a few terrible audience questions and one comment by Brian Wallis that made Lori Vrba (my partner in crime on this Sally Mann adventure) nearly bolt out of her seat, Sally finally joined the panelists. (OK, I must discuss the Brian Wallis/Lori Vrba dispute, that was tensely but tamely debated between the two of them later over cocktails. Brian said, “No one is making silver gelatin prints unless they are part of the antiquarian avant guard.” Them be fightin’ words. Lori rolled her eyes and wrote on her notepad, nostrils flaring, “HORSE SHIT”. It was quite a moment.)
Back to Sally. She is lovely. Absolutely lovely. The first question was about ambiguity – is that a concept she consciously thinks about when she frames her images? She says, “I traffic in ambiguity. I see it everywhere. It’s part of my vernacular. I shamelessly use it.” Isn’t she terrific?
A highlight for me, and I know for Lori who is a working artist and struggles with self doubt, was when Sally discussed her own fears of failure. She was asked “When do you realize the photograph you have taken is a good one?”. She said that at first she thinks it’s good, then she hears a little voice say “it’s terrible, you’re a terrible photographer, you’ve always been a terrible photographer. . .” and then eventually she starts building herself back up again. Really, Sally? Because we all think you’re pretty great. She said, “I have self-doubt so deep it masquerades as vanity”. It seems encouraging to hear an artist who so obviously is not a failure (Time Magazine named her America’s Top Photographer in 2001, which is just the tip of the iceberg of her successes) struggle with her work. It seems to give the rest of us permission to struggle too, and maybe it’s that struggle that gives us our fight to push through and start trusting ourselves.
Sally is most famous for her controversial and provocative early work, Immediate Family. This exhibition focuses on her newer work, but also includes some older images that compliment the theme of the body. When asked why more of her earlier work was not included in the exhibition (the only images from Immediate Family that were included were some color photographs taken within that body of work, but largely unshown), Sally and John Ravenal said it was a conscious decision. Immediate Family has in some ways dominated and overshadowed her career, and the aim of this exhibition was to expand the perception of her work and allow her other photographs to come to the floor and get attention.
One last point of interest that was covered was about her use of wet plate collodion (one of the first photographic processes). She said that she strives for a good marriage of technique and concept. Her newer work is largely about death and mortality. For this subject, the collodion process works – it is fragile and difficult and produces images that are ambiguous and distorted.
So three hours later, high on Sally fever, Lori and I left the lecture and prepped for the big, big event – the opening reception of Sally’s work at Reynold’s Gallery and then the dinner for Sally at Bev Reynold’s home. We had already seen the work at the gallery the day before, which left us totally free to stalk Sally. After lurking in her presence, only to continually have her pulled away by someone more aggressive (some would say brave), we cornered her (literally, she was in a corner and couldn’t escape) and introduced ourselves. This was a watershed moment. In the car on the way over, Lori said that this night would forever be the marker of her life – there would be the things that happened to her before she met Sally Mann and the things that happened to her after she met Sally Mann. We were pleasant, witty, and didn’t seem too obsessed or psycho. It was a success. The dinner was great since Sally-meeting was behind us, and Lori got to spar with Brian Wallis over the fate of film. Overall a giant and fantastic day.