Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Sally Mann at Gagosian

Sally Mann, Platinum, Stone #22, 2022. Platinum/palladium print, 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm). Edition of 3 + 1 AP © Sally Mann. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian

By GARY RYAN October 16, 2023

I briefly met and spoke with Sally Mann at the opening of her joint show with Edmund de Waal at Gagosian uptown on Madison Avenue, where she expressed openness toward an interview for Whitehot Magazine. The same evening I also met Putri Tan of Gagosian who had curated the show, who agreed to act as facilitator for said interview. The exhibition of their work is open through October 28th.  

Gary Ryan: I have just three questions, or rather three prompts for a response. One: With Immediate Family you explored the mysteries of childhood and motherhood in yes, very immediate ways, capturing magical moments that happen always, but often not fully noticed or not fully appreciated by any of us when they occur or more likely, ever. 

In later work, you mined the depths of darker things in your environment (and thus in ours too) by trying to understand myth, legend, impermanence, death by turning your lens to Civil War battlefields, to a body farm, to the sick bed of your own husband, to those things in life that give us pause, that seek to thwart us, that later sublimate to armature-like braces that in a way the rest of life comes to hang upon. 

In this series you have outdone yourself. Now the accouterments of the world, of life are not quite completely, but almost completely stripped away. In these photographs the swirling mystery of the hidden soul is the depth being measured. The semblances of physicality are present here, but more as reminders that yes, we still live in a world of shapes and forms, but it is a largely dark world, and perhaps ultimately unknowable. 

It is as if your hidden soul is herein laid bare via halide solutions and emulsion and heavy paper. No photographer before has ever given this to us in quite this way, perhaps because no one could, or perhaps simply because no one thought to try. 

Edmund de Waal and Sally Mann, to light, and then return—, 2023 © Sally Mann, © Edmund de Waal. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

SM: Goodness Gary, that is such a lovely summary, I hardly know what to say. You are a beautiful writer and I feel honored that you have taken such a thoughtful tour through my work. It’s odd how different subjects have called out to me, each with a certain sense of inevitability. Inevitable, that is, once they are finished--when I see how they slot in the continuum. It is, as you say, a swirling mystery until the time that the new work assumes its ineluctable and necessary place, almost as if it reveals the intentionality of the purpose only in retrospect.

Which sounds a little mystical, but what is art if not that?

GR: Two: The curatorial pairing in this show of your photography work juxtaposed with Edmund de Waal’s minimalist sculptures resonate with your work in terms of scale, simplicity, and visuality. Who first imagined this pairing? What were some of the conversations like with de Waal? .. with the curator? To what extent does this show realize what you and they were reaching for?  

SM: I think it’s fair to say that it was my idea, and that the curatorial accolades should be shared among the three of us (including Putri Tan at Gagosian). I have long admired Edmund’s work, both his writing and his visual art…and then when we finally met I was captivated by his gentle and kind persona… And, of course his brain and the love of language we share. So I returned to my studio, after that meeting, and, perhaps impertinently, began making work that I hoped spoke to (some of) the many aspects of Edmund’s. Once I felt I had made enough to feel confident sharing it, we showed the work to Edmund, and proposed we show together.

He graciously took a few days to travel to my farm in the Shenandoah Valley, and I went to his studio in London to see what he was up to. It became a quite interactive and protean affinity, working back and forth with forms and tactility and materials…. 

GR: Three: And lastly, what do you think is the present state of photography as an art form? And where do you think its path is headed as an art form? 

SM: Oh gosh, how would I know?  I live in freakin’ Appalachia! Like Flaubert, I just stay home and work 99% of the time alone. I truly have very little exposure to what’s going on in the art world, just what goes on in my own self-referential art brain. Maybe it’s not a brain, is it? My unknowable dark world of swirling mystery (like you said, which of course makes it sound a lot more interesting than it really is). WM


Gary Ryan

Gary studied philosophy at Ole Miss and theology at Harvard. He has written for the Associated Press, represented the Archbishop of Canterbury at the United Nations, and taught chess in NYC’s inner city. From Mississippi, Gary lives in Brooklyn, writes poetry, short stories, loves art, travel, and fly-fishing. He claims New Orleans as his second city

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