The ghosts of America in Sally Mann's viewfinder


By Roxana Azimi

Posted on 24 August 2019 at 09h46

What is being American? What is a native land? These questions are at the heart of the work of Sally Mann, who exhibits at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. An avid reader of William Faulkner, a native of Lexington, Virginia, passionately loves the South, where she was born in 1951, and never resolved to leave.

She is not unaware, however, of the muddy story in which her photographs come to rub, this memory of slavery, this racism still present today – Charlottesville in Virginia was the theater, two years ago, of a supremacist rally that left many injured and one dead. "The past haunts me since the beginning of time," Sally Mann wrote in 2017, indicating that, as far as she can remember, she has always had "Shame and a vague sense of responsibility".

Behind the lush vegetation, beyond this veiled light so unique to the South, the photographer stalks the American identity.

Do not rely on the elegiac beauty of its postcard-filled postcard landscapes of sepia and sepia tones, captured at dawn or twilight. Behind the lush vegetation, beyond this veiled light so unique to the South, the photographer stalks the American identity, shaped by hatred on the battlefields of the American Civil War, of which, for any witness, only magnificent centennial trees. She is also looking for her on the banks of the Tallahatchie River, to rekindle the memory of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black teenager brutally murdered in 1955 by two whites.

The segregation, she tracks it in her private life, with the character of Virginia Carter, nicknamed Gee-Gee, her loving and worshiped black nanny, suddenly taking the measure of "Everything she had not seen, not known, not questioned". Never, as a child, did she question the life of this devoted woman, who spent fifty years of her life in the service of her family. From this late awakening results a series of shots of a rare tenderness, like the one of 1991 where we see his girl, also called Virginia, asleep on the knees of her tender namesake with deformed hands by arthritis and work.

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In order to bring out the ghosts of the past, Sally Mann uses ancient methods, such as wet collodion on a glass plate, whose technical imperfections embrace human failures so well, as well as old age and disease.

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