by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.
(Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills) Sally Mann has become a familiar name to anyone who follows contemporary photography. Her most familiar, and controversial, imagery focused on the lives of her three children. These were tales of innocence, or of innocence about to be shattered by the intrusion of the adult world with its lies, violence, and a thousand other sins. They are powerful works evocative of age, so pure and because of their purity, so vulnerable. It is the tragedy of growing up.
Those of you expecting more of the same are in for a big surprise, but an even bigger treat. Mann exhibits a selection of 15 prints from her new series "Mother Land: Recent Georgia and Virginia Landscapes". All are large format photographs (30 x 40" and 38 x 48") printed by the artist, with frames designed by her also. Now we find her turning the camera to the land from which much of her early inspiration came.
More important is the feel of these images. The artist has attempted to capture the spirit of Pictorialsim, which dominated photography from the 1890's to the end of the 1930's. This style, which attempted to imitate painting, particularly that of Tonalists such as James McNeil Whistler, is known for its dramatic effects achieved through the use of special lenses and bold manipulation in the darkroom. The images are dominated by a fuzzy, dark, moody and atmospheric quality.
Considering Mann's love of collecting old lenses it is not surprising that she should turn to an old genre to explore a familiar theme--our loss of innocence. The unsoiled image of the land recalls the pristine work of early photographic pioneers Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan, who captured the beauty of the Old West. Instead of focusing on young children to remind us of what we have lost, the land now symbolically stands for the various stages of humankind. This wonderful Victorian sensibility fits in nicely with her previous work, which always had a subtle 19th-Century quality.
Mann is entering into a dramatic dialogue with the history of her medium, not only evident in the use of Pictorialist style, but for the sense of chance that she allows to enter into the picture-making process. Her use of these antique, and often less than perfect, lenses give her unexpected results. This is the opposite of the extreme control exerted by her predecessors. Furthermore, she does not "correct" the images in the darkroom, simply printing whatever she is given. It is the disparate combination of factors that make the work so powerful. They have an archaic feel, while retaining critical elements of modernism.
The large scale further enforces this feeling of antique prints created in an artesian environment. They function as haunting evocations of a gentler age: a hay cart in the field, a wall of split wood rails; a moody lake or an old fort. These highly charged pastoral scenes are inhabited by our imaginations, which quickly fill the scene with possibility.
The unique power possessed by our most gifted artists is the ability to help us see in a new way. Here, Mann reinvestigates the land of her native South, leaving a series of majestic and unforgettable images which serve as simple mirrors on the complexity of modern life and the responsibility of becoming an adult: the pain of growing up. This is her best work to date, and holds their own with the masters of the medium's past.
"Untitled" from the series "Mother Land: