"Time, memory, loss and love are my artistic concerns, but time among all of them becomes the determinant"
So how, at this melancholy end of summertime, could I fail to be deeply affected by her photos?
The currrent exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery is, extraordinarily, Sally Mann's first solo London show. As by the show of Alice Neel's paintings (which I still haven't written about, but I will, I will) I was bowled over, moved to aesthetic delight and a wide gamut of emotions. Over-Americanised as we tend to think we are, much of the best of American art and culture still reaches us late or little or not at all and still it's hard not to feel that this is especially true of women's work. Is women's art less globalised? Certainly it's often most concerned with the local: Alice Neel painted the people she knew in New York, while Sally Mann photographs her family, her farm, her state of Virginia - the wider American South the furthest her subject matter seems to stray. But local does not equate with small or narrow. The subjects here are the big ones: love, identity, life, death.
I'm so glad, anyway, to have seen this work. The large-format images, especially the ones taken by the historic wet-plate collodion process, need to be seen at gallery size and quality. The exhibition is quite small, but beautifully, atmospherically hung and includes work from the famous/infamous, intense studies of the artist's prepubescent children, her damp, melting, magical landscapes of the South, and the death photos - photos of corpses decaying in nature at a forensic anthropology research centre.
Powerful and unsettling, none of these, not the naked children or the dead bodies, struck me as shocking or, as some feel, cynically pitched to shock. I was moved and provoked in a positive way and above all delighted by the beauty and can only trust my instincts on this - and oddly, really, when I'm such a sad, disastrous person, I do on the whole trust them. The family photos put me in mind of Angela Carter's dirty-gothic fairy tales, the landscapes of the Faulkner novels Beth and Peter have been discussing, while the corpses seem to hover somewhere close, but interestingly removed - which is perhaps why they are more intriguing than distressing. The whole achieves the feat of being simultaneously dreamy and visceral, as well as cyclical, wholistic: life, heat, rot, death, life... and all of it frighteningly beautiful.
In a world of too little beauty, a beauty that is finely crafted, intelligent and unflinching is something to cherish. I shall cherish having seen these.
Pondering the exhibition catalogue over a glass of wine.