By Emily McMehen
Occasionally we come across an artist of exceptional talent, who knows what buttons to push and what happens when you push them. This is a rare combination, and one to be savoured when it presents itself. The unfortunate thing is that more often than not, this combination lends itself to the occupation of an uncomfortable territory between anonymity and infamy. Despite the fact that Sally Mann
spans more than three decades, and her work has been heralded as comparable to that of Robert Frank
, this Photographers' Gallery exhibition
is her first ever London solo show. Why is this the first we're seeing
of her work?
The furore that encircled Mann like a cyclone 18 years ago when she published her book Immediate Family, containing featuring a number of nude photos of her children, was hardly replicated by the tepid ripple of morbid grumblings around her more recent memento mori, featuring decomposing human bodies shot in Tennessee's Body Farm. Her photos describe fleeting youth without syrupy sentimentality, and death and decay as a process of tangible gentleness.
This exhibition, however, for those familiar with Mann's work, reads a little like one of those "greatest hits" compilations you can buy at the petrol station. A small selection from each of her most well known series reveal little of her eye's sensitivity, nor the rigor and dedication with which she approaches her subjects. Perfunctory explanatory texts adorn the walls, but compete weakly with the warnings as one moves from room to room that Mann's photos are not for the faint of heart. These cautionary notices seem not only irrelevant to the work, but impose a context on it that blunts the delicate nuances of the individual pieces. Our curiosity is contaminated by the promise of sensation.
Mann's process is uniquely investigative, lead by a combination of earnest love and endless curiosity. Her ability to tell her subjects' stories is tempered by defiance -- she has no reservations about rubbing people the wrong way. This makes the too-polite presentation of her work at The Photographers' Gallery all the more incongruous. Mann excels in the marriage of beauty and rupture -- her most moving images often depict something visually appealing in a way that contains echoes of nostalgic horror and displacement. It's as though her images could somehow corrupt the stored memories of your own childhood, or resonate with splendour in the unsettling thought of your own body as a corpse. Sadly, her most successful images in this category have been excluded from the show. In the case of the selected photographs from her series What Remains, too few are shown to generate the overwhelming strangeness or personal honesty of the set. In fact, no one body of work is given the room to saturate the space, and the set up does not allow the images shown to interact with one another enough to form a clear narrative of the nature of Mann's interest.