sally mann

Book Review: Sally Mann "Immediate Family"

I heard that Sally Mann just recently published a book that is more of a memoir than a photo book - "Hold Still". I'm not going to buy or read it. Oh well, I ordered it already.

My issue with Sally Mann is that I wish I knew less of her and her life and how she puts her work into context. Or what the critics think. Or what the public thinks.

I wish I had just seen "Immediate Family", the photos. No essays, articles, interviews. It's counterintuitive, right, because usually if you like somebody's work, you want to learn more about it. I did the same with Sally Mann and I'm thorough. I'm afraid this was a mistake.

I wish I never knew that somebody actually stalked her because of her work (I wanted to reference the interview where she talked about it, but can't find it right now). It adds a dimension to her work I don't want to associate it with. I totally understand why she came out with those issues, it's not an accusation nor do I wish she presented her work differently. It's a massive 'fuck you!' to the narrow-minded people who can think of art as art and need to mix it with their own prejudices and take extreme positions based on that.

I never wanted to know that all the pictures in "Immediate Family" are staged. I'm not against staging photos, I do it all the time, but here work doesn't seem to be staged at the first glance. I never thought about it when looking at the pictures. Learning the pictures were staged didn't make me appreciate them less, but it made me think about it whether or not my position changes. I'm afraid that thought itself changed my position. I never wanted to know, I would've never asked about that.

In case of movie reviews, the writers put SPOILER ALERTS into their text when they start to describe the plot. For me the context - articles, reviews, etc - around Mann's work is all spoilers and not because it describes the pictures (it usually doesn't), but because it desperately wants make me choose sides. Pornography, says one side, greatest artist of our time, says the other. Whatever you choose (I'm certainly more in the latter camp), the fact that you even think about choosing (see, I had to position myself even earlier in this sentence) spoils the experience of looking at the pictures.

It's been said that there're no less than eight pictures in the book that could have yielded Mann arrested (probably due to nudity). I'm pretty sure this kind of publicity will make many people buy the book, which, in turn, makes me hope this wasn't a publicity stunt. But then, with all that powerful knowledge, can I look at the book again and not wonder which were these eight pictures?

Sometimes context is good and more information is good and multitude of opinions is good. And, it now seems to me, there're cases where reviews and articles don't do any good. At least for the people who appreciate the pictures; although controversy has certainly been good for Mann's career. But maybe there're works you just need to figure out on your own - take a quiet and lonely moment in the evening, leaf through the book and go somewhere deep. Dig into your childhood memories or just appreciate art, but don't tell anyone what you think. Pretty please. Because anything you say out publicly will bear the burden of social norms and moral values, it'll position you and set an example for others.

Of course I realize how naive this statement is, that Sally Mann would never had such a career and I likely would never heard about her work and all. But Sally's been naive too, publishing this book in "a world where ***philia exists" (see, in my endless naivety, I'm now censoring that word cause I don't want my writing to show up on google if someone enters that search term).

I'm really glad I first saw "Immediate Family" from a blank position, without knowing much of her work. And when looking back, it's even better. Had I read all what I have now, I'm afraid I would've looked at it differently. Not necessarily differently in a bad way, but with expectations too see everything that has been described - from pornography to innocence - there.

When I see a good movie or read a good book, it should make me see things in some new angle, in some different light, open some new perspective. It is the very definition of good for me. And although it's much much harder for photography to accomplish the same, some of it does. "Immediate Family" certainly did.

Book Review: Alain Laboile "At The Edge Of The World"

One-sentence review: Accessible and flowing street photography style family pictures from rural France that are not Sally Mann.

I first saw Alain Laboile's work on Lens Culture where he was titled as European Sally Mann. An ambitious title and it's whole another story whether the photographer agrees with it or not. I hope he doesn't because the work is not comparable to Sally Mann, there's not nearly as much depth. It doesn't mean Laboile's work is bad, but it sure is different (and I do hope the ambitions are different too).

While Sally Mann's photos are thought out and carefully staged, then Laboile's work is more like street photography from countryside (actually rural France) farm with kids.

There're some exceptionally good photos, and there're some average ones too. This seems to be author's second book within relatively short time and that shows - at least sometimes I wish the edit was tighter. It's a continuation to the body of work and (for me, as I've seen hundreds of Laboile's photos already on Lens Culture) and sometimes has the taste of sequel to it. The motives and places start to repeat themselves - it's no surprise as all these photos seem to be taken in a relatively small area.

I still like how the photographic techniques vary and how the composition is not forced to any frames. The work seems to just flow, it's rather ad hoc, just like the kids' games, thus making it suitable for this type of pictures. It's a celebration of childhood after all and not some cold formalism. 

Some of the pictures make me wonder if they're staged, they seem just too perfect to be random catches, but then - I'm more qualified to notice this as my main work consists of pictures staged with children. Nothing wrong with that if this type of works conveys what you wanted to say.

One can't but wonder about the prevailing nudity in the pictures as it seems a bit artificial and over the top at times, trying to add something to the work that's not meant to be there (as an exercise - try to imagine Sally Mann's most famous and controversial pictures without nudity and see what's left). The author himself has quoted another much disputed photographer - Jock Sturges as his mentor making me draw connections that I'd rather not see. Just for clarification - there's nothing wrong with Sturges's work, I own no less than two of his books and find them beautiful, it's the idea of the connection that creates associations I wish weren't there.

But all this is compensated by the flowing ease with the work is produced. It's best viewed if you just threw away your ideas of what a photo should be and what it shouldn't, try to avoid any connections and contexts (that's why I hate the title 'European Sally Mann'). Then it's definitely an enjoyable experience.