The beauty of Sally Mann's images haunts the Jeu de Paume


The Jeu de Paume dedicates a great exhibition to the American Sally Mann: her children in nature, her tragic landscapes of the American South, the fragility of life, images whose beauty will haunt you for a long time.

Sitting under a tree, a pretty blonde girl sleeps deeply. Emerging from the nearby river, an alligator seems to approach. It is actually a toy. This image, like most of Sally Mann's, speaks of the luxuriance of nature in the southern United States, where she grew up and still lives, and the fragility of human life, the threat to her despite her apparent carefree vacation.

The Jeu de Paume presents (until September 22, 2019) an important exhibition of Sally Mann's works, photographs that are hard to describe as beauty is so great. This retrospective shows us chronologically his childhood images, landscapes, his reflections on the slave past of the American South, the passing time and the body that is deteriorating.

The American artist became known for the photographs of his children, who made scandal in 1992 when they were published. When Emmet, Jessie and Virginia, born in 1979, 1981 and 1985 respectively, are small, she photographs them on their vacation spot, the cottage on the family farm, located in Virginia, by a river.

In the moist heat of summer, they play and bathe, often naked. The photos of their mother, which evoke absolute freedom in nature, are not holiday pictures like the others. First they are taken in the room 20×25 cm, in black and white, and if they are inspired by reality, they are often staged. They are especially breathtakingly beautiful, like this portrait of his son with a friend (Emmett and the White Boy, 1990) or his youngest daughter under a hibiscus (Trumpet Flowers, 1991). The color she uses later, in medium format, dramatizes the red blood that flows from Emmett's nose (Bloody Nose1991).

Sally Mann does not idealize childhood, she expresses the pleasure of the games and also the dangers that threaten and the ambiguous feelings. Asleep between her father's knees, Virginia is so abandoned that she could be dead (Last Light, 1990). Bloody Nose 1991.

Sally Mann has been criticized for erotising the bodies of her children, using them, and accusing her of pornography. She defends, however, that this is how she spent her summers too, when she was small, naked in nature. And his children later supported him, claiming that they did not identify with their mother's photos: "It's a picture of me, but it's not exactly me, it's not close to me, it's not what I feel," says Jessie Mann.

After these controversies, Sally Mann stopped for a while to photograph her children to devote herself to the landscapes, the nature of her native Virginia, whose beauty she exalts, once again, breathtaking, but which bears the marks of a violent past, like this majestic tree and yet barred by a scar (Scarred Tree, 1998).

Raised in a rather liberal family that supported the civil rights struggle, Sally Mann became aware of the violence of the slave past. Haunted by the 1955 assassination of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy, by two whites, she has redrawn the murderers and photographed the scene of the murder, producing twilight images. She also travels to the battlefields of the American Civil War, from which she brings back dark views from which the only silhouette of a few trees stands out.

She began using the ancient method of wet collodion, which consisted of coating a glass plate with an emulsion, then immersed in a silver nitrate bath before being exposed to light. Far from the impeccable digital image, the photograph obtained by this process has many imperfections. Dust sticks on the emulsion, it flows, the edges are irregular and it is unpredictable. Sally Mann cultivates the accident. "I pray that there are defects that make a good photo", she plays in a film presented in the exhibition. She likes to work with imperfect material, tinkered, she says

When her husband Larry suffers from a serious illness, she photographs with great tenderness her fragility, and the defects of the collodion evoke the degraded body.

As an adult, Sally Mann realizes that black violence is also about her personal life. A black woman, Virginia, whom she nicknamed Gee-Gee, took care of her all her childhood. It was "the best mother that a child can desire". The photographer realizes that this loving woman, widow and mother of six, had two families. She had never wondered how she was doing. She then becomes aware of what she calls "the fundamental paradox of the South": "That a white elite, determined to practice segregation publicly, can privately base the inner workings of its home on an erasure of this same segregation".

"When (Sally Mann) became aware of the importance of Gee-Gee in her life, she realized how much this woman's existence had been shaped by racial and economic oppression and also realized the enormity of ' everything (she did not) '"write the curators of the exhibition, Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel, in the beautiful book that accompanies the exhibition and discusses the role of literature in the work of the photographer (Sally Mann, thousand and one passages, Editions Xavier Barral).

Sally Mann, who gave her youngest daughter the name of her nanny, dedicated to the "two Virginias" an extremely moving series and, once again, of great beauty. The little blonde, sitting on the floor and looking lost, presses against the leg of the old woman his head on which it puts his hand. Another image shows the child sitting on his lap, we only see his little feet on either side of Gee-Gee's tired legs.

And we can not help thinking that the photographer is trying to erase the boundaries between white and black in her series of self-portraits from 2006-2012 (Untitled, self portrait) made in ambrotype: a negative on collodion plate is placed on a dark background and appears as a positive. The boundaries between light and dark are blurred.

Sally Mann,
Sally Mann, "Gorjus", 1989, Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff (© Sally Mann)

Sally Mann, thousand and one passages
Jeu de Paume, 1 place of the Concorde, Paris 8th
from June 18 to September 22, 2019
Summer hours until the end of the exhibition: Tuesday 12h-21h, Wednesday to Friday 12h-20h, Saturday-Sunday 11h-20h, closed on Monday
tariffs: 10 € / 7,50 €

Sally Mann, thousand and one passages, Editions Xavier Barral, 332p., 55 €

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