Comments/Context: In the future, when some museum does a full and comprehensive retrospective of Sally Mann's work, I think it will be fascinating to consider how her embrace of the wet-plate collodion process has changed the trajectory of her artistic life. In my view, there is a very distinct break right in the middle of her prolific career, a before wet-plate and after wet-plate bright line where her work took an entirely new direction. Some will argue that the progression is smoother than I am making out, that she has always thoughtfully focused her camera on her family and the land around her, but to my eye, while the subjects haven't evolved dramatically, the mood is meaningfully different, perhaps a byproduct of the ghostly look and feel of the wet-plate prints, or perhaps a turn inward toward a more complex and personal psychological landscape.
What is new here is that after a riding accident laid her up with serious injuries in 2006, she boldly turned the camera on herself, making countless head shot portraits and nude torsos. There are no smiling, happy faces in this parade, however; her expressions cover the territory from deadpan to grave, with a few stops for steely, weary, wise, zombie-eyed, and almost meditatively ecstatic in between. The tonalities shift from washed out grey to brown to bronze to shadowy black, and the chance movements of the chemicals create unexpected spectral drips, swirls, and highlights that often obscure the image. Some of the works have also been scratched and abraded, with the emulsion flaking and chipping off, exposing areas of crackly black glass. Seen together as grids and typologies, the faces become a taxonomy of subtle emotional states; a wisp of hair or the details of wrinkles make some of the pictures humanly specific, while others drift into silhouette or death mask, the personal features erased and blurred. Mann's torso images are generally more abstract, reducing her body to a sculptural mass of white with a shadowy hint of a belly button or a dark triangle. The classical forms seem smooth and weathered, like fertility symbols from antiquity, at once haunting and timeless. The variation in these images is more subtle, elemental curves repeated with minute changes in brightness and contrast.
While Mann's images her nude husband were tender in their unflinching truth, these images of her own face and body seem tougher to me, even in their most elegant state. When she does engage the camera, her gaze is strict and penetrating, and I felt a sense of quiet defiance, a letting down of her guard but with a knowing resignation to and acceptance of what she was letting in. Taken together, the works are a rich, multi-dimensional portrait, full of dark, complex emotions and ephemeral moods, riding on an undercurrent of inner strength.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced based on the number of prints included in the work/grid. The single print works are $20000, the 3 print works are $36000, the 6 print works are $60000, the 9 print works are $84000, and the 20 unit work is $172000. Mann's photographs are widely available in the secondary markets. Auction prices for Mann's prints have generally ranged between $3000 and $70000 in recent years, with most still under $20000. Her earlier works were printed in editions of 10 and 25, so these new unique works will clearly have a different scarcity value. Mann is also represented in New York by Gagosian Gallery (here).
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)