The moment I found out Sally Mann would be keynote speaker at the 2012 SPE Conference “Intimacy and Voyeurism: The Public/Private Divide in Photography” in San Francisco, I enrolled. The event sold out so I’m happy I listened to my instincts, which told me not to wait, as surprises were in store.
My first treat upon entering the conference was meeting Daniel Milnor, a California based fine art photographer. A friend of mine shared Daniel’s work with me a while ago. I resonated with his passion immediately as he loves South America, long-term black and white story documentary work and like me, loves to create books of his photography. Daniel isn’t just about getting a frame; he’s a story teller with heart and he’s fun too.
- Daniel Milnor
I felt like I was 14 years old again, excitedly waiting in line at Dodger Stadium to see Elton John in concert. I had stolen my father’s station wagon along with my sister and two best friends from junior high. None of us had a driver’s license but we drove to the green tree-lined hills of Elysian Park, spent the night in the car and awoke in the morning to the swarming masses of fans waiting to get in with festival seating. When the gates opened, I heard my sister’s voice “Hannah, Hannah.” I turned around to see her being trampled. I reached down to help her get up from the ground; we stood up and ran like everyone else towards the stage. There I stood at the doors of the Hyatt Grand Ballroom along 1400 people side by side, trying not to push each other, as we vied for a space near the front doors to be the first inside. When the doors opened, we politely pushed and shoved as I ran to the front rows for a good seat.
It was disarming to hear Sally Mann read four-five chapters from her forthcoming memoir If Memory Serves. She focused on her love for the woman that cared for her as a young girl as well as her new project on black men. This wasn’t ordinary writing, she brought forth visuals that came alive. Sally’s gift for writing is as deeply profound as her photography. Even if Sally didn’t have an M.A. in creative writing, which she does, why wouldn’t she be able to express herself in writing when she was clearly a storyteller?
As Sally read for nearly half an hour, I started to wonder when she would speak of photography, then I realized I was putting her in a box. A box of “she’s a photographer, why doesn’t she speak of photography? “
She has never been truly traditional. I’ve read many interviews where she said she took up photography to be alone with her boyfriend in the darkroom. Mann pursued both writing and photography in her twenties and she was the one who proposed to her husband, not the other way around. She’s always been fascinated with death, another topic that pushes people’s buttons. I find her What Remains work on death and decay to be a visual poem even though the subject matter isn’t pretty.
Photographs Not Taken is a collection of photographers’ essays focused on failed attempts to make a pictures. Each photographer was asked to abandon the camera and, instead, use words to recreate the image that never made it through their lens.
Then, her summation began. It felt like she had thought about her message for a long time; like her photos, each image carefully lit,composed and thought out. Sally doesn’t take the importance of the written word lightly.
Sally began to speak, I settled back into my chair, relieved to hear her message.
“A voice inside suggests seductively to me that I should quit, that I’m a phony. That all the good pictures have been made and I have nothing more worth saying. It’s easy to believe that voice and as essayist Pedro Lopez has noted, it leaves me with only these two choices. I can try and make more pictures risking further failure and despair or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures. It’s essentially a choice between certainty and uncertainty. Curiously in this particular case uncertainty is the comforting choice. So I continue to make new work. I find the successful work done in the past now takes on great dignity and insidiously it subverts the new work. The older work seems so assured, so effortless, so inevitable. The new work: intractable, breech presented, muleishly stubborn, impossible to man hole into existence. And then out of nowhere, a miracle, a good new picture at last. Relief and a benediction and not insignificantly, reassurance for me, that is. Nobody else sees it as the landmark it is, nobody knows the depths this one picture dispels because I honestly didn’t know this picture was out there. From the prayerful moment of the shutter’s release to the excruciating ninety seconds as the image emerges in the developer, I am in agony of tamped down hope and what joy at the moment of realization. It’s almost orgasmic in nature and it’s fleeting. It lasts about as long as the apex of a wave and just as the wave takes the sand castle; it sucks my confidence out with it as it recedes. It leaves in its wake the brilliantly exposed reminder that however good that last image was; the next picture must be better. Each new picture holds within in the seeds of despair for it raises the ante for the ones that follow. Each time it is the same. I can always prove to myself that good pictures are elusive but I can never quite persuade myself that they’re also inevitable.”
“It is generally believed that art is made by exceptional people. If so, I am an imposter in the art world. I’m not exceptional. I’m just a regular person making regular art. Regular art is the kind of art most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, for example, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, statistically speaking, there would be very little of it. Art is rarely the result of true genius rather it is the product of hard work and skills learned and practiced by regular people and in my case, I practice my skills in spite of self doubt so profound it can masquerade as vanity. When I despair of the good pictures ever coming again, the only solution is to put my head down and soldier on like some desolate British galvary unit cut from from the bastions. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, It’s unexamined, obdurate effort. I take bad picture after bad picture week after week until relief comes; the new picture that offers benediction.”
“If edification can be one of the falicitous side effects of art, then the process of making the pictures can be as much a part of the art as the end product, the image in print.”
“The making of this work of the black men is a form of performance art and if you will, a very intense period of time during the relationship that obtains between the sitter and the photographer both informs and becomes the art. Sex and race both deepen the transaction but culture, age, background and life experience contribute to the gordian nature of the knotty moment. It is the most intense time imaginable probably for both of us certainly for me. I remember Dorothy Allison saying if you don’t break down in a sweat of fear when you write, you have not gone far enough. I’m going that far. It is not fear that is bringing on the sweats exactly but it is something else and it has to do with the nature of portraiture and why I have since the 1980’s, hardly made a portrait of anyone outside of my immediate family. I remember reading an interview with Richard Avedon in which he insisted that a photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed and what he does with that knowledge is as much a part of the picture as what he’s wearing. Avedon felt that his models had a certain power over the results, that they were implicated in what was happening. Of course he acknowledged that most of his models were professionals and public figures that knew exactly what the camera could do for them and to them. When pressed he acknowledged that they were also what he called “the innocents, who have no idea what my agenda is, how or why and for what purpose I am photographing them and who are simply curious and at the same time, generous with themselves.”
“Exploitation lies at the root of every made portrait and any photographer worth a damn knows this. Even the simplest picture of another picture is ethically complex and the ambitious photographer no matter how sincere is compromised right from the get go. There are nimble justifications, some grounded in expediency, and others cloaked with the familiar or Faulknarian conceit.”
“If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate. The “Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies. Maybe so and we can ask ourselves if Dora Maar’s discomfort over Picasso’s representation of her really matters at this point.”
“But the fact remains, that many, I daresay even most good pictures of people come, to one degree over another, at the expense of the subject.”
“When I work with these men my goals are primarily to establish a level of trust as to if only for these few hours, attenuate our historical racial past but secondarily I hope to convince this stranger before me that this work of art will be aesthetically resonate in some universal way and worth the risk of making himself so vulnerable. It’s a tricky moment, taking the photo is an evasive act, a one sided exercise of power whose implications when considered in historical perspective are unsettling.”
“Photography is always invasive but these experiences are consensual and in the best hours transcendent. I have had men, complete strangers, offer up their most tender physical characteristics; missing digits, scabbing, eczema, ridden backs, surgical scars with no prompting and no embarrassment in the quiet afternoon light of my studio deck. We don’t speak much but we both give and take something. At the most base level, making these images is exploitive, reductive, perilous and fraught. But at a higher level, which art making at it’s best can achieve, the results can also be transformative expressions of love and hope. If transgression is at the very heart of most photographic portraiture, then the outcome: Beauty, communion, honesty, empathy, and a greater understanding of what it is to be human, with luck mitigates the offense. The way we get from one to the other is as profound a grace as any art can hope to give. Thank you.”
I understood what Mann was conveying. My mentor used to tell me that you’re only as good as your last job.
Yes, Sally Mann has insecurities just like the rest of us. Perhaps more than the rest of us because she has reached a level of professionalism that demands more. She is a Guggenheim fellow and a three-time recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship names “America’s Best Photographer” by Time Magazine in 2001. She has been the subject of two documentaries; Blood Ties, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and What Remains, which premiered at Sundance and was nominated for an Emmy for Best Documentary in 2008. She has had major exhibitions all over the world and can be found in the most significant public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, and the Museum of Modern Art. She is also represented by Gagosian Gallery.
I waited in line with hundreds of people to have Sally autograph my first edition copies of Immediate Family, Still Life, and Deep South that I schepped with me. I purchased a copy of Proud Flesh as I heard her tell someone “let the ink dry” before she closed her newly signed book.
My Micron archival ink pens were ready in my bag until I noticed she had her own. “This is the right color.” she said when she saw the title page of my 1992- 1st edition of Immediate Family. “ When I asked her if she would look at my series entitled Pain and Loneliness, she said she would. I got the feeling she’s the type of person who does what she says she will do. Only time will tell.
When she spoke of the excruciating ninety seconds when she puts her film in the developer and the image emerged, I saw her in her darkroom and felt how much work she puts into each image. I felt the tangible, gripping, real experience of doing, and of being, the two combined is what an artist is. Digital can be easy, fast, instant. I wondered if Sally Mann held her breath in the darkroom, waiting, wondering if this image will be good. Will it be good enough? That’s what drives her. The next image that will make us pause, wonder about and ask questions. Sally Mann is a true artist; creating because she has no choice but because it’s what her voice insists she must do.
Her message was simple: Follow your voice and don’t hide in the dark. Henry Miller said that all growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience. When she reminded me not to place limitations on my art, Sally Mann gave me hope. Whatever drives me, haunts me and is inside of me, has to be given a voice because my dreams matter. She reminded me that getting out of my comfort zone, confronting my fears and revealing them is not only necessary but the only truth I can share.