Sally Mann: The Treachery of Memory

by Alexandra Gilliams

There are aspects of memories that we choose to remember, imagining small details that weren’t actually there, or bits that never really occurred, and perhaps now we rely too much on photography to help us make these moments more clear. Sally Mann (American, b. 1951) has expressed how looking at her photographs has not helped her to remember moments in her life, but how photography instead “impoverishes” the memory. She described this as the treachery of memory, and she has captured it notably through the inevitability of growth and mortality. She began shooting her life at home in Lexington, Virginia in the 1980s and was among the first photographers to uphold domestic life as a subject matter worthy to be seen from a critical point of view. She began her career taking portraits of her children, Jessie, Virginia, and Emmett, in their home as well as in the vast landscapes that surround it. Her children appear unabashed with black eyes, bruises, and bites received from playing together, swimming in lakes, blowing bubbles, playing dress-up… In the photograph “Jessie Bites,” a complacently guilty Jessie hangs comfortably onto an arm imprinted deeply with a perfectly round bite-mark. This haunting series unravels the idleness, pain, and pleasure of familial relationships and the communication that occurs between children.

Bean’s Bottom c. 1991 Sally Mann Private collection. © Sally Mann

The damp, lingering air of endless summers spent in the American South saturates her images with softness. Southern light carefully disperses over her subjects’ serene faces and through the lush forests that pervade the backdrops. Though delicate in some of her imagery, others are lit sharply from the scorching sun with contrasts so heavy that they cause each element of the photograph to appear deeply set in, almost as though they are engraved. She has captured life through childhood – the treachery of memory – moments that her children may never recall again, mainly through the sharp lens and large chamber of an 8 x 10 camera. Fleeting moments burned onto negatives in crisp detail.

Bloody Nose 1991 Sally Mann Silver dye bleach print. Private collection. © Sally Mann

She had a distant relationship with her own parents growing up, but grew attached to her caretaker, an African American woman named Virginia Carter, or “Gee-Gee” as she fondly refers to her. She created a series entitled “The Two Virginias”, where she captured the loving affection Virginia had for Mann’s child, who is named after Carter. The connection between the two is marked by an ephemeral juxtaposition of her child at the beginning of her life and Carter approaching the end of hers. The idea of death, of being reminded of our mortality, was awakened in Mann from a near-fatal horseback riding accident and a moment she recalled when she saw an escape convict shoot himself out her kitchen window…  and this awakening coincided with some relics of a forgotten time: the photographs she had taken of her children who were growing up. She knew it was time to move on to different subject matter.

Ponder Heart 2009 Sally Mann Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund. © Sally Mann
The Turn 2005 Sally Mann Gelatin silver print. Private collection. © Sally Mann
Was Ever Love 2009 Sally Mann Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the S.I. Morris Photography Endowment, 2010. © Sally Mann

Apart from the affection that Carter showed for both Mann and her children, Mann was also introduced to the reality of racism in the United States from an early age. Influenced by her relationship with Carter and her upbringing in the South, she began taking intimate portraits of African American men in order to speak with them about their life experiences. From these encounters as well as her life in Lexington, she began to create photographic studies delving into the dark history of the American Civil War. It was a moment in United States history that is rarely remembered or recognized for what it was, apart from being tucked away in school textbooks and at places in the South where they put on unrealistic reenactments.

Trumpet Flowers 1991 Sally Mann Silver dye bleach print. Private Collection. © Sally Mann

Mann began experimenting with old photographic techniques, in particular with the collodion process, which was invented just before the Civil War and was used primarily during the period to document it. Once she would set up her vintage, large format camera, she would carefully prepare her negative: a large sheet of perfectly clear framing glass that she would pour over meticulously with a collodion mixture. Once it sets onto the glass, she would have fifteen minutes to load the camera, expose the plate, and develop it – a brief, fast-moving technique that eventually results in very physical objects: a large glass negative and the resulting prints. In an interview, she recalled the moment when she had seen glass negatives for the first time. She climbed into an attic in the South in the 1970s and found some that were taken around Lexington just after the Civil War of landscapes that were identical to those she had seen in her backyard. These negatives possessed a passage of time, images of serene Southern landscapes that were loaded with an invisible history.

Battlefields, Antietam (Starry Night) 2001 Sally Mann Gelatin silver print. Alan Kirshner and Deborah Mihaloff Art Collection. © Sally Mann

She used this process in addition to others to document her surroundings: swamps and rivers that at first appear tranquil, yet were once used as escape routes for slaves. She continued this series by taking photographs of churches in the South that served as a place of peace and faith for African Americans for generations. From these series and by using the same process, she eventually began taking very tightly composed portraits of her children who were now adults, delving further into the idea of the inevitability of aging and the loss of certain memories.

Gorjus 1989 Sally Mann Gelatin Silver print. Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff. © Sally Mann

Mann’s experiments with old methods of photography speak to her subject matter. Both are ephemeral yet physical, taking careful stock of time, moments passing and becoming memories – abstractions in the mind that could be physically represented in photographs – stolen from time that can never be experienced in the same way. Memories are long, changing, complex… one picture in reality is insufficient to recall, either imaginatively or realistically, what really occurred.

A travelling retrospective as well as a book of Sally Mann’s work entitled “A Thousand Crossings” were recently featured at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, France, as well as at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California.

Alexandra Gilliams