Sally Mann at the National Gallery of Art

This past Sunday Sally Mann came to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC where she did a reading from her recently published memoir Hold Still, took questions from the audience, and then signed copies of her book. For those who do not know, in addition to being a photographer, I am also the rare book librarian at the National Gallery -- as day jobs go, one could do far worse -- so a certain bias is probably inevitable. That said, any misquotes or misinterpretations found here are completely my own, and do not represent the views of the artist or the institution. I will admit that although I bought the book several weeks ago, I did not have time to read it before the event. But after hearing her read a few excerpts and speak, I have been eagerly plowing through the entire thing.

First off, I would like to thank Sally Mann herself. She was extremely generous with her time, following her lengthy readings by answering several questions with quite a bit of depth, as well as giving everyone who stayed for the book signing individual attention. I mostly bungled my moment in her company and am certain to go unremembered, but at least I got her to sign both our library copy of the book and my own personal copy. I hoped to express my admiration for her work, tell her about my darkroom, and state my appreciation of her continued use of and devotion to silver printing. But instead I just thanked her and said she was an inspiration, especially to someone who photographs families. And she simply smiled graciously and said, "Well, be careful."

Also, I must thank the staff of both the Department of Photographs and the Department of Education for organizing the event. It was part of a series of talks, lectures and readings that, along with several exhibitions, was organized to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Department of Photographs, which I feel lucky to have enjoyed over the last several months. Rather than recount the entire event - though not up as of the time of this post, both audio and video recordings of the reading and Q&A will eventually be made available through the NGA website, I would instead like to simply note a few things that stood out to me and which I have continued to mull in the intervening days:

First, one of the things that I loved is how humble and genuine Mann was, both as an artist and as a person. Despite being a world famous photographer, and I might add deeply admired by myself and many of the photographers that I know, Mann was honest about her insecurities, unafraid to share those fears, to question her work and her history, and to publicly delve into the muck of life. There is much absolute certainty in the world, both in our media and within groups and individuals, and this seems almost ridiculous considering the general chaos of my own experience of the world. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism against such fractured modern life that makes people latch onto ideas as absolute fact regardless of how little evidence there may be. Or perhaps it has always been an innate quality of humankind that we need to believe that we know what is going on in order to function. Whatever it is, I found Mann's willingness to be open about her doubts utterly refreshing. Not quite Socrates claiming wisdom in recognition of his own ignorance exactly, or I don't know maybe it is. I just know that in my experience, doubt as a starting point for any artistic inquiry works much better than certitude. Mann's work deals with tough subjects like mortality, the vulnerability of time and memory, and race and the legacy of the south, yet while she grapples with the issues themselves, she also takes the time to question her own motives, her own authority even. It is not that she fails to own her history, her experience, but that she seemingly recognizes the contentiousness of such a personal interpretation while fully within its embrace. It is simultaneously the greatest limitation and  the greatest source of power in her work that she seeks what she calls "memory's truth" as opposed to objectivity.

Her experiences with controversy in the past may inform this awareness to a degree, but rather than shy away for fear of offending, Mann embraces the subjective nature of the work. For instance, as a preface to reading from the section of the book about Gee-Gee, the black woman who raised her and worked for her family for nearly 50 years, Mann talked about their relationship. She simultaneously acknowledged the historic problems inherent in such relationships in the south, while still affirming her own experience as something other than the stereotype we might assume. I found this informative dissonance on display in her description of interactions while traveling the south to make landscape photographs as well, but I would like to read those sections of the memoir more closely before commenting further.

On the technical side, someone asked about Mann teaching a masterclass, and to paraphrase, her response went something like, "Oh, I don't teach. I'm terrible at critiquing other artists' work. I think everything is great." For a photographer as well known as she, and with the decades of experience in the medium that she has, to recognize the limitations within herself is surprising. I am certain there would be legions of photographers eager for her tutelage, and she could command large fees as an instructor. And part of me believes that she likely has a great deal to offer any student or mentee, but I also wonder if more who decide to teach ought to perhaps be a bit more circumspect in this regard.

In a similar vein, someone asked a technical question about shooting, and she responded that she was terrible at the techniques of shooting, that she wasn't very good at using her light meter and often just didn't bother with it, relying on luck and hope to get a usable negative. Now, I would bet that with all of her experience Mann has gained a certain intuition about light and exposure techniques, and her work, especially the wet plate collodion images, evidences a great deal of technical skill, despite what some see as sloppiness in allowing dust and scratches to enter the works as serendipitous alterations. Yet her willingness to be straightforward and admit to not feeling as confident in some areas, to embrace limitations and set boundaries, well, that is inspiring. And I don't think it was just self deprecation or false humility because she followed that up by saying that printing is a different story. She loves to print and feels much more confident in her skills in that area.

Mann also talked a little about digital photography and her practice which was interesting for me. I often struggle to find the balance in my own work between the worlds of analog and digital - where are the lines, and do they even matter? She still works mainly with analog methods - wet plate, large format film and darkroom printing. But now in her 60s she is learning about digital technology, experimenting with how it can help her process. She described scanning her wet plate works as well as having her negatives scanned and doing edits in Photoshop. But then instead of printing directly from the file, she makes new negatives and takes them to the darkroom to print in silver. I just love this: to still be learning and exploring and embracing the new without throwing out the old.

Mann claimed that silver prints still have an edge compared to digitally produced prints, a range of tones and subtlety unachievable by digital means. I am not so sure that this is still the case. The large scale digital prints by Alec Soth that I saw in San Francisco a few months ago looked really good to my eye. I am not sure if they were inkjet prints or digital laser prints on photographic paper, but I want to say the former. That said, despite my own recent foray into digital inkjet printing, specifically my color work, the analog silver printing process is definitely much more enjoyable and makes me think about my work in a different way than clicking the "Print" button in Lightroom. I truly believe that all day, everyday could be spent in the darkroom had I the means to ditch a paying job. And coincidentally, I just started experimenting with printing digital negatives, mainly as a way to make silver prints of black and white conversions of color film images. So far it seems that the resolution for digitally printed negatives is so limited (at least with my Epson 3880 printer) that the best I can hope to do is print 8x10 negatives on transparency film and do contact prints, but I am curious to learn more about what Mann (and others) are doing in this area.

And finally, there was Mann's response to a question about how she found balance between work and family, finding time to both make art and raise children. I loved her response because this seems to be such a common struggle, something I hear a lot and not just regarding family but balancing all kinds of life commitments with one's work. Mann said that she never really differentiated between the two, that making a photograph and raising a child were not, for her, opposite or incompatible things. Neither is more valid than the other, and I think this is born out in her work. Her (arguably) most famous body of work focuses on her children and their life on the Virginia farm where they grew up. There is a bit of the opportune in it. Why not make photographs based on what your life holds at any given time, especially when your work is as personal as that of Mann? But I think it goes beyond just documenting the everyday experience. Many people do that. In fact, with smartphones and social media, today we are all documenting the minutiae of our lives to a degree that is almost incomprehensible. No, Mann's work with her children digs deeper, explores concepts and transforms the individual experience into something universal.

Similarly, when Mann moved to shooting landscapes throughout the south, it was to a degree made possible by her children being older and requiring less of her, but circumstance alone is not what makes the images. And they are not merely beautiful places, beautifully lit and expertly framed. Rather it is Mann's openness to experience these places that allow the images she makes of the land to ask questions about its history and convey feeling and even epiphany. I believe that a photograph can be created anywhere, and what makes the photograph is not the circumstance of light, camera and position, so much as the active mind of the photographer engaging with the world. When Mann says that there is no difference between making art and raising children, to me that confirms this, signify the idea that photography grows from our experience and engagement, that the techniques are incidental tools and it is only in the service of an artist that the resulting image becomes something more.

You can find Sally Mann's Hold Still in the National Gallery of Art Book Shop and anywhere books are sold. I would also recommend watching this interview with Sally Mann talking to Charlie Rose back in September 2014. Thanks for reading!