Sunday, November 2, 2008

Mann, Goldsworthy and Nerds

Revenge of The Nerds (1984) is my favorite film of all time. When that is not on or my copy is lost, we must find other things to watch.

Finally got a chance to see the documentary Rivers and Tides, Working With Time (2001) about artist Andy Goldsworthy last weekend, and then dug into What Remains, The Life And Work Of Sally Mann (2008) this evening. I don't want to get into a big review, but again it is interesting to see what sticks in your brain after watching these things. Goldsworthy comes off as a true whacked-out artist who is shown communing with nature and molding it into his art in such an effortless and organic manner that he seems to be more plant than human. In the land, making his art, he is deep in the flow. He is at peace and delivering the goods...and he knows it. The crew later visits him at home at the kitchen table, surrounded by his children's play full energy while his wife cooks breakfast and he seems to be checked out of the scene: distanced, distracted, physically there but not present. That scene told it all...he just isn't meant for human contact. He can try to play the game amidst us humans. He can get a wife and have some kids, live in a house, etc....but he is meant to be in the land.

I had heard all sorts of great things about What Remains. Mann became the definitive Mom photographer with the 1992 publication of Immediate Family, her body of work on her kids. Now, 15 years later, I have kids and am trying to address it in my work, so I thought it would be cool to view this. I had always liked Mann's images, though I was always confused by their similarity to the work of photographer Emmet Gowin, whom I believe was her teacher. Gowin's work, no question, defined the genre of photographing family. I learned about his work early and am still moved by it to this day. But...we are here to discuss Sally Mann.


The documentary is lame: Mann could not be a more well adjusted and a totally grounded human being. Her kids, now grown, seem to have a great relationship with her. Her husband is cool and they love each other and seem to be best buds forever. I'm psyched for her, but all of this harmony makes for a boring documentary. The whole thing climaxes with an exhibition of hers being cancelled by Pace Gallery in NY. We never find out why this happened or what the deal was. Were they afraid it wasn't going to sell? Were they bummed by the subject matter ( dead bodies ) she was working with? Did they have a hot show by David LaChappelle they wanted to show instead?
The body of work she was trying to exhibit dealt frankly with death and decay, two themes which have always been in Mann's work, so this new body of work wasn't really a left turn...more of an extension of things she has touched on in the past. It looked great to me: it had the darkness of her work, but lacked the physical sensual wonder the children always inserted into the Family images. It was a new body of work for sure that stood confidently on it's own. Seeing this revered artist suddenly overtaken by self doubt, right in front of the film crew was a priceless moment for anyone who has dealt with artistic rejection ...which I'd assume is everyone reading this blog.
Watching The Mother Project, the documentary about Tierney Gearon a few months back kicked my ass and gave me license of sorts for my Echolilia project. I didn't get that from What Remains, but Mann did have a moment when she was discussing her Immediate Family images. She credits the kids with images totally, explaining the depth of self awareness and control the kids had to put forth to deliver these images to her. She didn't really take any credit for the images herself...and it rang true. Anyone who has shot a kid over and long period of time knows that feeling. The kid is delivering the performance, you are both sharing the experience...but the photographer is really just pushing the button.


Erich said...

The self doubt was the best part of that documentary.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. I so wanted to mention the Mann relationship with Gowin, he is/was her Mentor. Her work is great, but a complete rip off if his family idea and visual feeling. Thanks for blogging about this.

Former fartingonthunder blogger

Cal Crary said...

That is a hilarious review of Mann.

Timothy Archibald said...

Hey there Cal-
Why did you think it was funny? I reread it and I'm not seeing anything funny. Explain.


Cal Crary said...

Thanks for your reply. You start the review very straight, "The documentary is lame: Mann could not be a more well adjusted and a totally grounded human being."

Then you go on to describe her normal life and finish is with, "but all of this harmony makes for a boring documentary."

I think that, as in most doc, viewers are looking to related the experience with something that is either parallel to their own lives, or in direct contrast.

I have not seen the doc, but am guessing, through your description, that she is hoping to inspire freaky photographers, my self included, to be more normal but she really just bored the pants off of us.

And that makes me laugh the same way a monster truck with a flat tire makes me laugh. Irony.

Anonymous said...


Studio said...

The post is funny...haven't see the doc.

Anonymous said...

I saw the doc. Not sure why you are saying it was lame. She is grounded, she is normal. Did you want her to be off the wall and outrageous- so that she could live up to some kind of popular stereotype of an "artist"?

The documentary did explain why the gallery wouldn't show the work- they didn't think death would sell. Maybe you were raiding the fridge for a snack and missed that part? ;)

What I think is interesting about her family work and how people criticize it now, is that they forget to remember that she was one of the firsts to make work like this. At the time she made it, it was very controversial, very new. Now it is old news, but then it was something people were quite drawn to and she opened the door for photographers and artists to explore a whole new range of subject matter.

In other words- you can't make photographs of your children without being compared to Sally Mann. She hit the mark.

Timothy Archibald said...

Hi Anony-
Good points all across the board, and I may have been making popcorn or something at the time the issue about the gallery/work was explained.
It is true that one can not shoot their kids these days without being compared to Sally Mann. That is a good point. She certainly was not the first to do it intensely, and the work of her teacher Emmet Gowin clearly was an influence that she borrows from heavily....the subject matter, the look, the feel, the darkness and the dreamyness...even the use of death as a metaphor that colors everything. To me this doesn't take away from her is great. But lets always be aware of , and pay tribute to, our influences.

sexy said...







Angus R Shamal said...

Nice mix of films in one blog post. I enjoined reading that.

But to comment on your closing words, Thimothy. I don't see it as "the photographer is really just pushing the button." - not for a quality photo, that is.
I don't see Kids or even your own kids as a subject being really that different from any other person you photograph. They perhaps give you more to work with with less masks and they move maybe a lot faster.

Photography is exploitative by nature, and we try to bring it to that extra artistic degree to overcome that fact, don't we?

There are millions of photos out there of family members and all that, and as cherished and important they might be for them, they mostly look like crap.

So, a good photo can't be just a click. It's not just about the camera, is it.
And Mann's dismissal comes over even less believable, knowing what a "pain in the bum" and complicated her technique is. :)