When Sally Mann released her book At Twelve in the late-1980s the art world was rife with artists concerned with exploring the body politic and empowering female roles in society. While much of their work fell into the conceptual camp with Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger - Mann's work sat somewhere between older traditional description and the politics of the day, and for me, represents an important stepping stone between the two. Mann's politics, although strongly present in her pictures, never threw out the baby with the bath water - she was also making complete photographs that were complimented by their politics and not replaced by them.
Mann has photographed her family for decades, but mostly her children have been the focus. These motherly gazes combine warm maternal attention and equal amounts of free spirit where both photographer and subject are exploring their roles as collaborators. Oddly, Mann's husband, Larry Mann, has not appeared in many of the images beyond playing a supporting role from the margins. Now after six years of work and with the release of her newest book Proud Flesh, Larry is present and it is the children who have receded into the shadows.
Proud Flesh is for me an emotionally exhausting work about withering. It has elements of 19th century clinical photography done with absolute loving care for the subject. Its factual surface is quickly replaced by metaphor and the haze of imperfection from the wet-plate collodion negatives she employs. In a few of the images, due to the choice of striped bedding on which the figure lays, we might be looking at a historical photograph take from Auschwitz or Bergen Belsen. With Larry's thin and seemingly weak legs dangling over the edge of a wooden cot, the soiled bedding following the contour of his legs, it is difficult for me to see this image without this harsh historical reference. The following image in the book, he is turned into a martyr - arms out stretched - the sheet underneath him now sharply crinkled like a bed of straw (or an imagined crown of thorns).
The surface texture plays such a strong role in these photos much of the seduction of these photos comes from the beauty of those imperfections. At times they can be nauseating, for their liquid streaks ooze over the images of aged flesh keeping viscera and bodily fluids as a second metaphoric subject. On the cover image, the disturbed collodion emulsion leaves a pattern which seems to be both looking at, and looking inside, the torso standing before the camera. Like Lee Friedlander's shadow self-portrait (see the cover of Like a One-eyed Cat) where his organs are replaced with a jumble of rocks and his head is filled with straw, Mann's image turns Larry's insides into a mix of man and machine - collodion cogs and gears. This is the most wishful, as it portrays the strongest sense of life and the perhaps even the possibility of escaping its mortality. He stands at table's edge with a steadying hand and a closed fist.
The most remarkable image for me appears as plate 20 and is captioned Time and the Bell (2008). Like the aforementioned cover image, this is an ideal as Mann has turned her husband's head and shoulders into a profile bust of marble - the washed out light tones give way to a few angular shapes of rich shadow. It could be a still life of artifacts from an artists work space, a table and a sculptural work in progress. The surprise of the photographic description, which is present in most of the photos in Proud Flesh, is so complex and engaging for me it is difficult to not have it outshine all of the rest.
Proud Flesh is beautifully printed and its large format scale is perfect for the subject. Essentially a companion piece to her last Gagosian Gallery book of collodion portraits of blurred and out of focus faces, it is elegant and well designed. The sole detractor for me is Mann's titling of the images which thankfully only appear at the end of the book on a caption page. Speak, Memory (2008); Xerxes Wept (2004); Tender Mercies (2007); The Beautiful Lie (2007); Pull Down Thy Vanity (2006); Each Single Angel (2005); The Nature of Loneliness (2008); Harness of Necessity (2008); Was Ever Love (2009; The Quality of Affection (2006). They try at wit and profundity - references galore - but their presence is heavy handed and an undeserving addition to the work. I'll manage to keep my attention affixed to the photographs which are eerily beautiful, poignant and perhaps some of her most personal and revealing to date.