I have been an admirer of Sally Mann for a long time. I became aware of her photography just as my own love of portraiture was blossoming. While we have never met, we are contemporaries and my kids are the same age as hers. There are far more points of departure than confluence in our lives, but those intersections have had an impact on my view of Mann and her visual and written work. Beyond all that, I deeply appreciate much of her photography just as I admire much about her as an artist. Thus, when I learned that her autobiography (“Hold Still”) was about to be published I was anxious to read it. I found it to be entirely compelling and a great source of artistic wisdom. She is a strong writer and has a lot to say on subjects far beyond the controversy by which so many people know her name..
This blog contains the first of several thoughts and impressions I want to share about Sally Mann and her new book. In future entries I will look at some of the other issues raised by “Be Still”: the ethics of photographic portraiture, the controversy surrounding “Immediate Family”, and my admiration for those photographers with the courage to depart from the work that built their reputation and to create something entirely new. One recurring question is raised in all of these discussions: Why do we photograph? For me, the evolving quest to find the answer is paramount. In “Hold Still”, Mann shares her own insights in a way that is both candid and fascinating, albeit almost painful to read in places. On this point more than any other the book is a valuable resource for any serious photographer.
I. To be good, you need to do it a lot and in a way that is true to who you are.
It is clear that Mann’s accomplishments are the result of her dedication of thousands of hours to photography over a period of many decades. This intense commitment over a long period of time is critical. Neurologist Daniel Levity has posited the “10,000-hour” rule, a notion which underscore’s one of the bases for Mann’s artistic success.
“It’s not a rule so much as it is an empirical finding….[I]t comes down to that in order to be a world-class expert in anything, be it audiology, drama, music, art, gymnastics, whatever, one needs to have a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that if you put in 10,000 hours that you will become an expert, but there aren’t any cases where someone has achieved world-class mastery without it. So the time spent at the activity is indeed the most important and influential factor…. [O]n a pragmatic level, it takes about three hours a day over 10 years to acquire 10,000 hours.
While I am cautious about assigning a specific number of hours as being “enough”, the point here is that Mann’s commitment to photography had already spanned twenty intense years at the time of the publication of “Immediate Family” in 1992. She wrote her family about her first engagement with photography in April 1969:
“I have just returned triumphant from the darkroom. The best photographer in the school helped me develop my film and both he and I were absolutely ecstatic with the results. A lot of the pictures were of patterns of boards, textures of peeling paint on walls and some vines -·- and old farm machinery. But their composition and depth and focus were all really good. I am absolutely frantic with … happiness and pride …. It’s all rather unbelievable and perhaps a total fluke, but I am very excited anyway. God!!” “Hold Still”, p. 35-36.
That excitement quickly became an obsession that motivated Mann’s high level of commitment and hard work in support of her craft. She notes in “Hold Still” of her “tolerance for peasant like, toilsome labor…
I am put in mind of my own willingness to plug away in the darkroom, from dawn way beyond dusk. Perplexing all my friends in the photography community and aggravating my family, I have always insisted on making every print myself, even the 40 x 50 inch landscapes. For almost two decades I virtually lived in the darkroom, figuring out how my problematic negatives should be printed and struggling with my enlarger, a 1919 Eastman Projection Printer that possesses a level of technological sophistication that would cause a caveman to drum his fingers with impatience. Each day I would make as many prints as my washers could hold (twelve) or as I could stand to make. I would often reprint an image several days in a row, tossing out hundreds of sheets of (now precious) silver printing paper, noting each day’s detailed printing instructions on the negative’s envelope…” P. 203-204
This level of dedicated slogging was at once a reflection of Mann’s passion and a key to her future success. It was something more likely to come about in the analog age than in the digital world in which we now live. A friend of mine — a highly esteemed teacher of photography — is fond to say: “In the old days, it took a few years to become a mediocre photographer. Now anyone can go the Best Buy and become a mediocre photographer over night.” Mann came of age photographically in the analogue era, when even the most basic success required hours of time and a high degree of physical labor. I suspect that the hours of “peasant like, toilsome labor” in the confines of the darkroom, illuminated by soft red light, surrounded by the smell of fixer and stop bath and listening to the gentle gurgling sound of running water, impacted her deeply. There is an opportunity for contemplation in that environment which I personally find lacking as I sit before the computer screen, alternatively refining an image in PhotoShop, checking my email and reading the latest news headlines. Indeed, there is a sensuality of making photographs in a manner that involves contact with chemistry and requires long periods of isolation, an elevated mental state which allows for reverie and free association.
“Reverie is not a mind vacuum. It is rather the gift of an hour which knows the plenitude of the soul.” Gaston Bachelard
Mann notes this phenomenon as she discusses her current collodion work, where the “exotically tempting smell of ether” is her constant companion and where the creation of an image in the field can take hours under a dark cloth as she strives to compose the image on the ground glass of her view camera. Moreover, these analog processes more readily allowed for mistakes which could in turn become the grist for new insights and techniques. “I found myself praying for the angel of uncertainty.”
All those things matter. Big time. I suspect we will never read of Sally Mann extolling the virtues of a new digital processor or memory card. She grew up and still lives in the long ago past, both aesthetically and technically. She sleeps with volumes of Proust by her bed. (I would not be surprised to find Edgar Allen Poe there from time to time.)It is the confluence of her life, the history of her family, her mindfulness of the landscape and her particular artistic technique that define her and her photography.
II. To succeed the artist must work past doubt.
Like many (most?) accomplished artists, Mann has often struggled with self doubt. She has also had to endure the fiercest of criticism of both her photography and her fitness as a mother. Additionally she articulates the nagging fear that her best work has already been done and that she faces an inevitable artistic decline. Yet she has pressed on. Similar notions have crushed many artists, including F. Scott Fitzgerald among many others. I found her very candid writing on these tender subjects to be particularly interesting and illuminating.
“I start on a new series of pictures and right away, in some kind of perverse bait-and-switch, I get a good one. This freak of a good picture inevitably inspires a cocky confidence, making me think this new project will be a stroll in the park. But, then, after sometimes two or three more good ones, the next dozen are duds, and that cavalier stroll becomes an uphill slog. It isn’t long before I have to take a breather, having reached the first significant plateau of doubt and lightweight despair. The voice of that despair suggests seducingly to me that I should give it up, that I’m a phony, that I’ve made all the good pictures I’m ever going to, and I have nothing more worth saying….Each good new picture always holds despair within it, for it raises the ante for the ones that follow.”
And yet she “soldiers on”. When in an artistic funk she sees only two alternatives: “I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair y not making more pictures….” The net effect of Mann’s obsessional work habits and her unwillingness to succumb to that doubt is the key to her ongoing success. Not necessarily success as measured by book sales but rather success in being the best photographer she can be. And it is on this point, and in her restrained confidence in her own inherent artistic talent, that I think she is the most inspirational.
“It’s easy to prove to myself that good pictures are elusive, but I can never quite believe they’re also inevitable. It would be a lot easier for me to believe they were if I also believed that they came as the result of my obvious talent, that I was extraordinary in some way… So what 1s this that I’m making? Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art… In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit… I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.”
My paraphrasing and selective quoting of Mann only begins to capture the full notion of all she has to say on these points. The book deserves to be read in its entirety. There is much solace here for any photographer or other artist who has hit that wall of doubt.
In the next installment of this blog I will examine some of the issues surrounding the controversy generated by the publication of “Immediate Family”, questions that remain as pressing today as they were 25 years ago.