Sally MannThe Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude (1987)

In my admittedly short lived travels in fine art photographic circles, Sally Mann tends to be merely tolerated in public while she is derided and/or dismissed for her ‘excessive sentimentality’ behind closed doors.

So it’s not surprising to witness her wondering aloud in HBO’s excellent documentary What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann whether or not she’ll be ‘pilloried’ by the critics when she exhibits her new project.

It’s a telling scene. Mann’s observation demonstrates a keen understanding of the disparity in her reputation between consumers of culture and the cultural gatekeepers/overlords.

The accusation of ‘excessive sentimentality’ is a palpable hit. The sentimental lies at the foundation of virtually everything she’s ever made. (Except maybe the cibochromes–which if you haven’t witnessed, you are truly missing out on some of the most staggering color work since Eggleston.) 

The cultural gatekeepers/overlords aren’t so patient with sentimentality given their unquestioning adherence to the syllogism dictating that the sentimental is to art as Kryptonite is to Superman.

It all strikes me as too convenient. Yes, Mann’s chosen medium is photography. But that doesn’t mean her lineage can only be traced back through Gowin to Callahan and the Bauhaus movement. Mann belongs equally to the tradition of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau both of whom are comparable sentimental and adored for the fact.

A better criticism might be to draw attention to her blemished, unnecessarily dark printmaking.

Or better yet, acknowledge that–as the aforementioned scene illustrates-even when anxiously doubting herself and her work, she plays the conceptual art shell game masterfully.

What makes her work great is she always predicts criticisms that will arise from the work and uses the work to refute them in advance.

What makes Immediate Family the greatest work she’s ever likely to produce, is its naive, unblinking curiosity that didn’t manage to see the snake until it had already stepped on it and still somehow avoided getting bitten.

It’s impossible for me to narrow that work down to a single favorite image. But this image of Emmett is easily one of the top five.

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