Sally Mann The Family The Land Exhibition at Musee de L’Elysee

For the first time in Switzerland, a museum exhibition is devoted to the exceptional oeuvre of Sally Mann – On view from March 6 through June 6, 2010

Over the past fifteen years this body of work has earned Mann a deservedly international reputation. Since the 1970’s this American photographer (b. Lexington, Virginia in 1951) has been dealing with the troubling themes of intimacy and the inexorable passage of time. Sally Mann’s work is centered on portraits of her children, as she observed them closely and with great honesty as they grew into young adults. The portraits are complemented by landscapes, revealing strangely timeless places characterised by an exuberant nature seemingly charged with symbolism.

Sally Mann, “Candy Cigarette”. De la série Immediate Family, 1989. ©Sally Mann. Courtesy: Gagosian Gallery

Since her debut, Sally Mann has pursued the path of intimacy. Her work is distinguished by a specific technique, at the same time both traditional and inventive: the use of the large format camera together with a selective use of nineteenth-century processes. Mann is also admired for her mastery of optics and related exposure times, some of which can last several minutes.

Mann’s work is concerned with the exploration of themes that are both personal and universal: childhood, memory, mortality. The photographs of her three children, gathered together in 1992 for the book Immediate Family, sparked immediate controversy, while propelling the artist to the summit of the American photography scene. However, in the dialogue that developed in the work between the children and their environments, the landscape would acquire increasing weight; by the beginning of the 1990s it would be depicted devoid of human representation. Wishing a fresh approach, the photographer attached nineteenth-century lenses to her camera (one of which is thought to have belonged to the celebrated portrait photographer Nadar). Profoundly attached to her place of birth, Mann focused her camera on the Southern States, a region marked by a particularly turbulent history. By employing antiquated equipment and nineteenth- century photographic processes, Mann succeeded in infusing her images with a radiant atmosphere. The long exposure times render tangible air and light, evoking the great American tradition of the sublime.

The most recent works in the exhibition – those made since 2000 – reward viewing on another level. They deal poignantly with vulnerability, old age, death and decay. Fragility is also reflected in the tightly cropped portraits of the children – now young adults – and the large format invites contemplative scrutiny. It is now difficult to distinguish between Emmett, Jessie and Virginia, as the particularities of the photographic process confound distinguishing traits. By means of glass negatives and the wet collodion method, the artist once again questions memory and the ephemerality of life or as Sally Mann herself puts it in a phrase that could be either a declaration or a question: « what remains ». Thus the artist shares with us a personal vision, close and intimate, a meditation on life and death.