The Touch of an Angel
A Conversation between Sally Mann and Jiang Rong
Jiang Rong: Looking at the five major bodies of work you have published so far, there is an underlying continuum among them. What was the original impulse that led you to use photography rather than writing as a medium to express yourself?
Sally Mann: I wish I could be a better writer, but writing is so difficult. I get seduced by visual aesthetics. Because I just like making beautiful pictures, sometimes I wander away from making a clear statement. As for my original impulse, I don’t know exactly. Now that I have been working for about forty years, I can see that there is a consistent set of interests in all my work. But even half way through, I wasn’t sure what it was.
Given that you majored in poetry when you were in college, could we say there is a close affinity between poetry and photography?
Some of my pictures are poem-like in the sense that they are very condensed, haiku-like. There are others that, if they were poetry, would be more like Ezra Pound. There is a lot of information in most of my pictures, but not the kind of information you see in documentary photography. There is emotional information in my photographs.
Your early series, such as At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, focused on a specific topic. I think this series was more like documentary work compared with your later series, Immediate Family, in which photograph can stand alone. With At Twelve, it makes sense to look at all the images together because they are about girls leaving childhood and entering into womanhood; these photos have social and cultural implications. But Immediate Family feels more like fine art photography. How did you make that leap forward?
As you say, with At Twelve I tried to circumscribe myself, answering just one particular question about the girls in those photographs. And I limited myself to twelve-year-olds. As for The Immediate Family, the photos were wide open. They were about the complexity of childhood. As my children grew up, each year they would have a set of new issues, from wetting the bed to pretending to be adults. So in this series the topics were open-ended, while At Twelve was mostly about just one topic.
You said that when you were young, your father told you there are three avenues for artistic expression: sex, death, and whimsy. It seems to me that you have taken his advice and started to explore the subject of sex first.
Yeats said that the only two compelling subjects are sex and death, but I don’t really agree with that. I don’t think either At Twelve or The Immediate Family have much to do with sex.
But sex isn’t the same as pornography. I think your works were more about the children’s awareness of their gender. So gender may be a better word than sex.
I agree, but there is so much more to The Immediate Family than just gender. I photographed my children almost every day. I wanted them to look natural and not posed. By contrast, the pictures in At Twelve were always very carefully posed.
Because I don’t live with those children. I had to make an appointment with them to go to their homes and photograph them. So they were all posed.
Once, when talking about using a large-format camera to capture fleeting moments, you said that the best photos in The Immediate Family are the ones that look effortless, just like 35mm snapshots. How did you achieve those effects?
My kids were so complicit and tuned in to how photography works. They were basically actors and were willing to work with this lengthy time frame. They were so relaxed and comfortable in front of the camera. Like the image of Virginia leaning back on Larry’s lap.
And like the one taken on Easter day, in which Jessie is showing off her new dress.
That image was carefully staged. I had to ask someone to hold the dog and then let it go, and Jessie had to spread her dress out like that probably ten times. But with each exposure she did it with genuine ease and grace.
You also said that sometimes it felt like the touch of an Angel when you managed to get graceful pictures.
No kidding, even though it may sound too poetic. It felt magical when we got the very best pictures. Like The Perfect Tomato. I mean, how lucky were we that Virginia was making that little expression just as Jessie was stepping down into the light. That was just a miracle.
You once said that you hope the Immediate Family pictures “tell truths, but truths ‘told slant’”—just as Emily Dickinson put it. What did you mean by truths “told slant” in the context of your photos?
I mean that they are not told in a mendacious way, but told with a little bit of an edge, or perhaps a “punctum” that catches your gaze. I wanted to tell a story with a hook that catches you and holds you. You could take a flat picture as opposed to a slanted picture, but then it would just be a fact, like “here is a child wearing an Easter dress”. But you have to make the image interesting—complex and peculiar. For example, the dog running in the Easter picture: is that a dangerous dog or a wolf? Why is it running? And why does that man gesture that way? I want my pictures to make people think and question, even if it upsets them.
Do you think there is any conflict between staging and telling the truth?
What is the truth in photography? It can be told in a hundred different ways. Every thirtieth of a second when the shutter snaps, it’s capturing a different piece of information.
But you once said that you wanted to “invoke and illuminate the most difficult truths”. So my question is about whether it’s possible to get the truth at all.
I think truth is a layered phenomenon. There are many truths that accumulate and build up. I am trying to peel back and explore these rich layers of truth. All truths are difficult to reach.
From Immediate Family
After your works about childhood, you moved on to other subjects. What led you to take pictures of landscapes in the South of the United States?
I wanted to explore the region’s mystery and complexity. The South has its own unique issues: Why did we behave the way we did in the Civil War? Why did the South depend so heavily on slavery? Why do we have the racial attitudes that we do? Why the sense of honor? Why the warrior spirit? Because many of the family pictures I took used Southern landscapes as the backdrop, it was a very easy shift for me to focus on photographing the South itself. I spent six years on exploring that topic. Deep South is one of my favorite bodies of work.
You said that you have never left the South to create art, and you consider yourself a Southern artist.
There is no denying that I have made most of my works in the South. In that respect, I could be regarded as a Southern artist. Southerners are preoccupied with the past, with myth, with family, with death. And, of course, we tend to be a little more romantic.
Why do you think that is?
I guess it’s because of the temperature. Also, the light in the South is so different from the North, where you have this crisp and clear light. There is no mystery in that light. Everything is revealed in the Northern light. You have to live in the South to understand the difference. In summer, the quality of the air and light are so layered, complex, and mysterious, especially in the late afternoon. I was able to catch the quality of that light in a lot of the photos.
And you referred to it as the “translucence and fragility of light”.
Yes, and also the refulgence or the reflection when light and water interact. There is no coating on the lens of my old camera, which permits a much softer and more luminous light. I am less interested in the facts of a picture than in the feelings. The facts don’t have to be absolutely sharp. I can get information across by appealing to viewer’s emotions.
How did you connect your landscape photos with the subject of death?
I am not a spiritual person at all, but there was something spiritual about that road trip down South. I was by myself for a long stretches of time, driving down these back roads. I think some people might have been afraid to be by themselves in these back roads, but I never was. I was visited by various mysterious feelings. I truly felt as if I was being kept company by departed souls, by ghosts. It was a very affecting trip for me.
On the road, I was mostly thinking about the history of slavery in the South. When you drive through the South, you cannot help but realise that it would not be the way it is now if it hadn’t been for hundreds of thousands of slaves who suffered and died on this land.
It was also a battlefield where so many people were killed during the American Civil War.
So going from the Southern landscapes to the Civil War battlefields was an easy mental shift.
Did the death of your greyhound Eva and the death of that escaped prisoner on your farm also contribute to this transition from landscape to death?
Yes, I was very fond of that dog and felt guilty and sad when she died. It sparked that sort of interest, though—about how we decompose.
When did you start to ask the question, “What does death do to the landscape?” Was it triggered by the death of that prisoner on your farm?
Actually, I had already started to ask myself that question. Because of the Civil War and the history of slavery, the South is the most death-inflected part of this country.
After you were done with the landscapes in the South, you started What Remains, a series you photographed on a body farm. I am curious about this title. Why didn’t you put a question mark? Is it a question or is it a statement?
Good question. It comes from a line in Ezra Pound’s Cantos. “What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross. What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee.” The process of making all those photos was based on a question of what remains. But it’s more of a statement that this is what remains. By the time you get to the end of that book, my answer to that question is, in a word, love. Love is the only thing that endures.
As a noun, the word “remains” also means “body”. So the title could be an exclamation.
Right! What Remains!!!
It is very hard to look at the images in this series. But you said there is “humanness in dead bodies”. Why did you want to take these photographs?
I thought it was an important part of the project to actually confront human death. I am curious about why people are bothered by a simple fact of nature. I like to make people a little uncomfortable. It encourages them to examine who they are and why they think the way they do.
You were hesitant to include the photos of the children’s faces in the last part, because you were afraid that they could be too sentimental. So why did you end up including them?
I thought by the time you got to the end, it needed some sort of sentimentality.
These photos have complex layers of imagery. They could come across as sonograms of babies in the womb. But they could also be pictures of deceased babies. They are very ambiguous.
What a remarkable observation. Also, while some of them look ecstatic, others seem to be dreaming. And some embody the fleeting, ethereal nature of life.
It seems the death of your father made a very deep impression on you. Notably, you said he remained unafraid even toward the end of his life.
He had brain cancer. He was a doctor and always said that he wouldn’t let himself to get to the point of being just a drooling human shell. His death had great dignity.
Are you afraid of death?
I am not looking forward to it. I am mostly afraid of disability and being circumscribed in what I can do physically or mentally. But I am not afraid of death. I had a really bad accident in 2006 and came very close to being killed. I have this passion for horse riding, despite the obvious risks.
Why do you love it so much?
It’s as close to ecstasy as anything I know. I was way up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, riding a beautiful white stallion. We were galloping along and his heart burst and he died. He landed on me and my whole body was broken. To me, it was the classic pivotal wakeup moment. It almost killed me. Afterwards, I couldn’t do anything; I could barely walk, and could not lift a camera. So what I did was to have my camera set up in my studio and I just took these self-portraits. I looked like a million-year-old woman. Those images are all about aging, vulnerability, and death.
Someone said that if you are aware of death, your whole life is actually a preparation for death.
You can prepare for it in two ways. Either you are fearful of it and try to guard yourself from it. Or you can live more intensely in the moment. Death, in fact, can make you appreciate life all the more. Ever since I was almost killed, every single moment of my life has become infinitely more precious. Up until that point, I had seen a number of people die, but it had never come so close to me. I have decided that I had better get more work done and also try to enjoy the life that I am living.
Did your husband’s muscular dystrophy also make you realise that we are all so vulnerable to death?
Yes, it makes me more focused.
From Deep South
You said before that you don’t remember your childhood and that that is one of the reasons why you wanted to do the Immediate Family series. Is it fair to say that you took those photos of your children because you want them and yourself to remember their childhoods?
We took a lot of snapshots during their childhoods. Like every family, we have big albums filled with family pictures. They are going to remember their childhoods through their snapshots. But here is my theory of photography: I think pictures actually create memories. When I remember my childhood, I remember pictures of my childhood; I don’t remember actual moments. Photographs are really subversive in that way. If those are the only memories we have, and we know that photography lies—or at least is very limited in its presentation of information—then what does that make your childhood? One big lie?
But at least you have something tangible to look at. When you took those pictures of your dog Eva, you reassembled her bones piece by piece after she had decomposed. And when you took photos of Larry for the Proud Flesh series, you basically also took photos of him from head to toe, inch by inch. So am I right in thinking that you created these two series in order to remember?
The pictures of Larry are not so much a document; they are more like a caress. To me, documents seem a little cold and factual. Taking those photos turned out to be a way Larry and I could spend more time together, although we have lived together practically since we were teenagers. But this time it was so focused and intimate.
You have also been making another series of photos about your family called Marital Trust. What is the difference between Marital Trust and Proud Flesh?
Marital Trust is like The Immediate Family in the sense that it’s a mixture of iconic imagery, posed very beautifully. These images are about everyday life, like brushing your teeth, making the bed, taking your shoes off, and so on. This one picture of Larry just taking off his shoes. It’s one of my favourites in this series, because it’s such a quiet, simple, and unremarkable action, but the way he did it was so poignant and tender. It makes me cry when I look at it.
It has been said that one of the abilities of a great artist is to turn something mundane into something beautiful.
Yes. Look at Bernard who made paintings of a woman in the bathtub. Dégas painted an everyday, simple scene of a man looking at a woman in a room and it is super-charged with a variety of emotions and feelings. So, I happen to think that’s true. Images don’t have to be big and heroic to pack a punch.
Why is the series titled Proud Flesh? Why do you want to put an adjective in front of the noun? I think by doing so it might limit the room for interpretation in that body of work.
I think one of the things that makes that series so strong is that you have a man who is getting old. On top of that, he is having this terrible muscle-wasting disease in his left arm and right leg. But he is still proud—in the sense that in spite of this terrible deficit he remains unafraid.
For you, these are still images of Larry. But for a viewer like me, you have already turned him into a very abstract imagery. It could be anybody in these pictures.
Also, this title has another meaning. When a horse is injured, there is an intermediate step while the skin heals itself. It forms this scabby covering over the wound called proud flesh. It’s a precursor to actual healing.
Someone once said, “A man’s body doesn’t lend itself to abstraction like a woman’s.” Do you agree?
I think I do. Once I asked Cy Twombly why there are so few pictures of male nudes. He said that they are just not as beautiful.
I tend not to agree with that statement. That’s why people had such difficulty looking at your image of Emmet in Popsicle Drips, because they thought it was a frontal nude photo of a boy.
It goes back throughout history. Women have always been the subject of artists’ paintings and sculptures. I don’t agree that the male body is a poor subject for art. I am going to tip the scale single-handedly.
One of the words most often used to describe your work is “unflinching”. To me, you dare to break the taboos, like sex, nudity, and death. Is it important for an artist to be so unafraid?
There is a great quote from a female writer. She said, “If you don’t break out in a sweat of fear when you write, you are not writing well enough.” I tend to agree. I think my best pictures come when I push myself and tell myself, “That’s not good enough. I could do better”. Working with Larry, there were times when I knew I was close to a picture, but it was not quite there. So I said, “Let’s just work a little more”. I was out of my comfort zone and started to have anxiety about these pictures. I would wonder if maybe some pictures were too risky or too revealing, that maybe this picture makes Larry look bad. There is one in which he is curled up in a fetal position and looks so helpless. I saw that scene and said to myself, “Do I dare take a picture like that?” I was sweating, but I did. You have to be overcome your fear of the picture and take it.
You’ve said before that “There’s a kind of reverence that goes along with doing this process. You have to pay your dues to the photo gods.” Do you mean to say that we have to be humble in front of photography?
Well, it’s more complex than humility. There is a lot of drudgery and repetition involved in my process. Malcolm Gladwell just wrote a book in which he states his belief that you don’t master anything until you have spent a minimum of ten thousand hours on that thing. I think it is really true. That may be one of the things that separates really great long-term artists from a flash-in-the-pan artists.
Proust said “The only true paradise is paradise lost”. I still think what you are trying to do is to hold on to this paradise that is going to be lost. Am I right?
I am deeply romantic. My works are not sentimental, but romantic and very, very tough, too. Yes, I am trying to hold on to a paradise that is inevitably lost, even though there is no such thing as a paradise. It’s fleeting. But I don’t want to figure out what I want to do. It might be dangerous to know. Once you know it, maybe you would stop working. I start a project by setting up my camera and taking what I think might be a picture in the end. But I don’t often start with a concept. My first picture isn’t necessarily about anything.
Just like someone once said: “If you don’t know what to write, just write the first sentence that comes to your mind. And the myth of writing a novel is to find out what the next sentence is”.
Exactly. A lot of writers don’t know how their books will end until they get there. They start writing to find out what will happen to their characters. I start to take a picture because something interests me visually. Then I build on it and the context that surrounds it. So my projects find me.
You quoted William Carlos William as saying, “The local is the only source of the universal.” Is this the reason why you never want to leave home to make art?
Yes. That’s a great quote.
What do you think should be the mission of an artist?
To express their intellectual curiosity. Just like Emily Dickinson said, to reinterpret the obvious world in the way that enlightens it and enriches it. As artists, we have the obligation to do so, because we have the gift to see things differently from other people. If the world we present to the viewers can challenge them, provoke them, and even change their situation, so much the better. And if it is beautiful at the same time, that’s icing on the cake. That’s my own mandate: to make beautiful art that also is about something. I want to make the ordinary resonate for my viewers in a universal way.
The conversation took place at Sally Mann’s home on April 4, 2010.
The interview originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Chinese Photography magazine.
(All rights reserved. Text @ Jiang Rong, Images @ Sally Mann)