|Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989
Sally Mann created controversy two decades ago when she published photographs of her three children, Immediate Family. The photos are beautiful, artistic and arresting. The idea of publishing nude pictures of her children is startling, knowing it can and would attract pedophiles. Did she really think the photos would only attract the photographers and art connoisseurs, as she claims? I would not do the same sharing of my children’s private moments, but should I judge her? To me, art is reconciliation. I look at art to bring opposites together and to negotiate the ambiguities of life, so that is what I am able to find in Sally Mann’s work. She, too, photographed her children to reconcile her need to be a mother without suppressing the artist in her. They are one and the same.
In June Sally Mann spoke at the National Gallery of Art and read excerpts from her book, Hold Still. She uses language exquisitely, much as she composes photographs with great artistry. Like any good biographer, she succeeds in creating mythology. While reading her book, I was thinking isn’t everyone’s life so rich and interesting? It takes the artist to know that, to find that and to bring it to light. Her book is worth the read.
Candy Cigarette hits us in the gut about that time and place of transition into adolescence when we try to rush the process. It expresses the essential difference between her three children marked at a moment of time. The pre-pubescent daughter Jesse stands in center, in an affected pose. The brother is on stilts behind. Virginia, the youngest turns her back to us. The children are together but very separate, each caught in their own version of reality, expressing their individual truths. Composition and placement make the photo work. Jesse’s strong, sharp elbow leads the way to both the brother and the little sister. The angle of the cigarette points to the younger girl who in turn looks at the brother. Of course in this image, she brings out the significance of the moment. In many of her photos, she shows the not-so innocent quality of children, which is why many found it disturbing.
|Sally Mann, The New Mothers
Mann’s photos can be spontaneous or contrived, or a combination of each. A hallmark of her work is balancing the factual with the contrived. She takes happenstance and makes it better. Artists have an ability to see the significance in some event, enshrine it and visually communicate in way that maximizes its significance. They help us, the viewers, to see inner states of mind as eternal truths. Black and white photography — with the emphasis on contrast — sometimes is best.
When looking at The New Mothers, I’m reminded of the very first fine art photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. The children pose and act, much like Paul and Virginia, a heart-warming photograph of Victorian children acting as if ‘in love” back in 1864. These kids were good at it. Mann’s own daughters are delightfully feminine and express the joy being that way. We appreciate their strength in expressing themselves, as we move into a time period that tries to suppress expression of pride in one’s gender.
|Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul and Virginia, 1864
When judging on her artistic merit and on what makes her message resonate, I believe her work hits at something quite deep. Rarely does photography approach the artistry of painting, but Sally Mann does by finding what is special in the mundane world. She can see the extraordinary in the ordinary. She sees life in death and death in life.
What I personally look for in art is a way to reconcile opposites. All life is paradox, and Sally’s art hints of this paradox. Art can unify. Life is messy but in art there can be a place where all comes together and we can make peace with messy situations.
Among the descriptions of her children’s pictures are disturbing, unsettling and “suggestive of violence. There’s a wildness about the kids, freedom, strength and to some people, suggestiveness.
|Cover photo, Sally Mann, Immediate Family
At the same time there’s love written throughout. She loves what they represent and what they taught her, as children have much to instruct us about uncontrived living. Perhaps it’s that she portrays them without vulnerability that disturbs some people. When Mann photographed her children, she had their permission (at least until they reached a certain age). Most pictures don’t show them as innocent and vulnerable. As long as they’re under her watchful eye (and the camera’s eye, they are protected by their mother. As she said in her talk, she saw her roles of being an artist and being a mother as one and the same. Her pictures are daily life. All of life is paradox, and her family photos show everyday life with hints of the paradox between innocence and experience.
How and why did she grow up to be an artist? Sally claims to have had free-range parents, but lived at a time before free-range parenting became a buzz word meaning neglect. It was possible in ways it isn’t today. Accordingly, Mann is an artist from a place, Lexington in southwest Virginia, the burial ground of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Her father, husband and one of her daughters attended school at Washington & Lee. She went to the Putney School, where she was influenced by an inspirational photography teacher. She then went onto Bennington, but graduated from Rollins College. She has a masters in Creative Writing from Rollins.
Much of what she writes about and photographs is about her surroundings, her identity with the South, themes of life and death which she views together. Is her account a bit exaggerated? I believe so. I really question if a few of these stories really are true, or if she is merely using her skill at creating a great story. She describers her parents as unemotional people, totally absorbed with matters of the intellect. She wants to feel closeness to her children, perhaps sensing that she needed more from her own parents. Of her ancestors, she feels special connection to the sentimental Welshman, her mother’s father, and to her own father who had a fascination with death. Her father was a country doctor who went to people’s homes and was totally dedicated to his patients. He had an artistic side that his profession prevented him from following. Her mother ran the bookstore of Washington & Lee University. She sees herself as channeling her father’s largely suppressed artistic side — and his obsession with death. He gave her a Leica camera at age 17 and started her on her photography obsession.
Mann and her husband returned to the Shenandoah Valley to raise their children, as it is a place the kids could run wild and in the nude, as she did as a child. A nude photo of Jessie in a swan pose took some work. While watching her kids, with the artist’s eye, she noticed the significance of an event in passing. Then she worked on the photo of it, through trial and error until it reached the near perfect. She grew up playing in old swimming holes. There was nothing unnatural about skinny dipping in this environment.
Being a photographer was her way of being a hand’s-on parent and truthfully I admire this much more than the hard-driving moms who separate their work life from family life and put that life ahead of appreciating the life of child. (I should write another blog about children in art, and about how other artists treat the theme of childhood.)
Mann has published other books, including What Remains, 2003, Deep South, 2005 (photographed in Mississippi and Louisiana), At Twelve, 1988, Still Time, 1994, and Proud Flesh, 2009. She is currently working on photos of the theme of black men.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
|Rosamond Purcell, Field of the Cloth of Gold, 2010
A group of pictures in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition this past fall, Very Like A Whale, fooled me. I thought artist Rosamond Purcell’s medium was some inventive watercolor, ink or acrylic technique. Was the room too dark, or are my eyes are going bad? To my surprise these pictures were photographs!
It was an imaginative way to portray Shakespeare, and artist whose myriads of visions who give us such a breadth of humanity. Very Like a Whale
took its exhibition name from a quote in Hamlet showing the human ability of interpreting single objects in multiple ways.
(Hamlet and Polonius saw different images in the same cloud.) Purcell curated the show, along with Shakespeare scholar and Folger Director Michael Witmore. This pair also collaborated on
a book, Landscapes of the Passing Strange
, using her photographic images with evocative quotations from Shakespeare. This great review
is by an English teacher.
|Rosamond Purcell, Twenty Shadows
The exhibition covered scientific knowledge in Shakespeare’s time using objects and prints created during the Renaissance. Quotes from various Shakespeare plays and Purcell’s color photographs were interspersed with these more scientific images in a suggestive and imaginative display. For example, Twenty Shadows, above, was one way of seeing Shakespeare, and the graphic presentation of viewing instruments is another. Near the demonstrations of refracting light and perspective was a quote:
“Each substance of grief hath twenty shadows
Which shows like grief itself but is not so;
For sorrow’s eyes, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed up
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form” — Richard II, Act 2, scene, lines 14-20
|Rosamond Purcell, Awake Your Faith, 2010
Purcell’s photos make me think of change and of flux, but they also can be enjoyed as abstract compositions without the quotes from Shakespeare. Does she have a unique developing technique with strange chemical solutions? Probably not, but she takes her photographs from images reflected on antique mercury glass jars. The colors are beautiful, and the forms as they mesh and flow together are evocative. Surreal has been a word used to describe some of these works. Awake Your Faith, right, is a photo of a statue in The Winter’s Tale.
We may see something today and it could be gone tomorrow. What seems to be real may in fact not be real. That’s how nature works. And, as a quote from Shakespeare that was in the exhibition, says:
“Fortune is painted blind……….she is turning and inconstant, and mutability and variation;
and her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls and rolls and rolls.” — Henry V, Act 3, scene 6, lines 29-36 (The Folger used one of their Library’s images for this quote, but Durer also made an engraving of Fortune in the current National Gallery show.)
Purcell’s interest in science is a constant, though. She is a collector of objects found in nature and has always combined science with her art. She is especially known for her photographic documentation of natural history collections. As an author, illustrator and/or photographer, Rosamond Purcell has written or illustrated 17 books.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Sam Gilliam, The Petition, 1990, mixed media
Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition, African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Era and Beyond gives a broad overview of 43 artists whose work spanned 8 decades of the 20th century. Over 40 photographs, as well as paintings, give a provocative picture of urban and rural life during the Depression, the age of segregation and the Civil Rights and later. Although there is some overlap with other 20th century art movements, the exhibition is mainly art focused on African-Americans and their lives. Both abstract and figural paintings are included, but also sculpture by Richard Hunt, Sam Gilliam, an important recent figure in the art scene of Washington, DC. The artists come from the South and North, with a large number from urban areas of Detroit, New York, St. Louis, Baltimore and Washington, DC.
Detroit artist Tony Gleaton recorded his travels to Nicaraguain in Family of the Sea, 1988, from the series Tengo Casi 500 Anos: Africa’s Legacy in Central America, above. Roy De Carava was a New Yorker whose photos capture aspects of city life as in Two Women Manikan’s Hand, 1950, printed 1982, on right. (gelatin silver prints)
The portraits give impressive concentrated views of individual personalities, particularly by Tony Gleaton and Earlie Hudnall, Jr. I especially liked the photographs of Ray DeCarava, for the artistic compositions with interesting value contrasts. Although the portrait photography is very interesting, I’m partial to DeCarava’s staged compositions which look like film stills.
Ray DeCarava, Lingerie, New York, 1950, printed 1982, gelatin silver print, left.
Gleaton’s works are part of series photos, such as Africa’s legacy in Central America. But there is also a series from the WPA (Works Project Administration of the 1930s, part of the New Deal. Robert McNeill ‘s several photographs include those from his project entitled, The Negro in Virginia which has both interesting portraits and slices of life. The art of photojournalism really began at this time, during the 1930s.
The contrast of black and white photography works well exhibited next to bold, colorful works of art by the Harlem Renaissance artists, such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, who worked with collages. Bearden, Lawrence, as well as Lois Mailou Jones and Norman Lewis, are among the most important painters who contributed to the artistic life of Harlem in the 20s and 30s. The Harlem Renaissance also produced writers, musicians and poets such as Langston Hughes.
Community, by Jacob Lawrence is a gouache of 1986.
It is a study for the mural of the same name in Jamaica, New York
Lawrence lived until 2000 and spent his last 30 years as a professor at the University of Washingon in Seattle. The exhibition has both an early and a late work. Lawrence maintained a similar style in the later work, always influenced by colors in Harlem which he said inspired him. Lawrence’s most famous works are the series paintings, The Migration Series, half of which is in Washington’s Phillips collection, and the Harriet Tubman series and the Frederick Douglas series at the Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, where another large collection of African-American art is kept.
Charles Searles’ Celebration is an acrylic study for a mural painting
in the William H Green Building, Philadelphia, made in 1975
Charles Searles was from Philadelphia and the Smithsonian’s Celebration is actually a study for a mural done in the William H Green Federal Building in Philadelphia. Likewise, Community is a study for a mural Lawrence did in Jamaica, New York, 1986. It evokes a spirit of togetherness and cooperation.
Norman Lewis, Evening Rendezvous, 1962
Abstract works may actually be visualizations with other meanings. Norman Lewis’s Evening Rendezvous of 1962, is an abstract medley of red white and blue, but the white refers to hoods of the KluKluxKlan and red to fires and burnings. Not all is innocent fun, but Enchanted Rider, done by Bob Thompson in 1961 is more optimistic. The rider may actually be a vision of St. George who triumphed over evil and is a traditional symbol of Christian art.
Enchanted Rider by Bob Thompson, 1961
Though the exhibition is somewhat historical, it wants the viewer to judge each piece on its own merit, and to see it as a unique expression of the individual artists. There is not a heavy emphasis on chronology or history. Lois Mailou Jones is one such personal, but symbolic artist who picked up ideas from living in Haiti and traveling to 11 African countries. In Moon Masque, 1971, pattern, fabric design and African rituals are evoked. I like the color in most of these paintings and the celebration of life so vividly expressed in these works.
Lois Mailou Jones, Moon Masque, 1971
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has the largest collection of African-American Art in any one location, but this exhibition is only a portion of their collection. Some modern masters, such as Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold and Perry James Marshall, are not included in this showing. After the exhibition closes in Washington September 3, it will travel to museums in Williamsburg, Orlando, Salem, MA, Albuquerque, Chattanooga, Sacramento and Syracuse for the next 2-1/2 years.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016