The Boldness of Sally Mann

Nobel Prize-winning writer William Faulkner once said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

Faulkner wrote about the American South as if it were a nation by itself, and his themes reflected a time of great social change that was often resisted.

For me, Sally Mann’s work reflects many of the same themes. In particular, her 1998 photographic series Deep South captured not only Mississippi’s heart, but also its soul. There was something haunting and deliberate in the way Sally photographed the Mississippi landscape, you could sit for hours imagining the history of the people who had traveled those roads, rivers and byways. Like Mississippi’s native son Faulkner, the South is always present in Sally’s work.

Sally’s work is bold, and boldness sometimes comes with a bit of controversy, but I believe it was photographer Richard Avedon who said, “If art isn’t controversial, it’s failed. That’s the point of art, to disturb.What would we need creative people for if they tell us only what we already know?”

And I would add that you should never jump to conclusions, but rather judge for yourself and allow the artist to peel back the layers, so that you understand where they are coming from. So, while I may not be comfortable with all of Sally’s art, I appreciate that she pushes me outside my comfort zone, so that I’m aware of what I like and don’t like.

And that is exactly why I’m planning to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Art to see Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit which includes over 90 photographs of Sally’s most recent work and an 80-minute documentary about Sally’s life. Sally’s photograph’s fetch upwards of $50,000 now, so it will be nice to see a collection of her best work up close in the context it was meant to be seen.

Photos © Sally Mann/Lindy Keast Rodman/Times Dispatch.

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