Sally Mann's Proud Flesh is eroticism on ice
Photographer captures her husband's physical charms in the face of his muscular dystrophy
Photographer Sally Mann's husband of 40 years is wasting away. The handsome, tall, accomplished Larry Mann, a lawyer and part-time blacksmith, is fighting an ongoing battle with muscular dystrophy. In Proud Flesh at Jackson Fine Art, Sally documents her husband's nude body: his back, his torso, his skull, his legs. It's as if she's anatomically cataloguing her husband's physical charms before the grip of the disease transforms them. Though the experience of the disease is specific to those who have it, the circumstance his wife documents is universal. As all of Sally's work has illustrated, parenthood and marriage are steeped in the bittersweet recognition that the things you love most in life will eventually disappear.
But the images are more than portraits of vulnerability or disease, despite Sally's use of formal elements to remind viewers of mortality's presence. Sally's antiquated collodion wet plate process of photographing onto a glass instead of film negative creates all sorts of attendant unpredictable erosions and flares that evoke the idea of a corrosive disease.
More often, the images feel fundamentally erotic and virile. But it's an eroticism on ice, the sublimated eros of anatomical studies and artists' models. The images are both loving and strangely detached, but never show Larry in a position of abject weakness. If anything they bolster his strength. Sally's ongoing photographic vantage suggests a cool customer who doesn't give herself over to unseemly displays of emotion. In "Somnambulist," Sally captures her husband's legs and buttocks bent in a posture of exercise. The image is as complicated, aloof and as sexy as any of Bellocq's haunting nudes. With his elegant white hair and workhorse body, Larry retains the beauty of his gender even as his body wastes away. The pride in the exhibition's title is also Mann's. It is the covetous pride of an artist who is able to keep her most beloved moments locked away in photography's bell jar.
Despite taking the close-to-home material of her family and the South as her content, there is nothing soft or indecisive about Sally's work. Proud Flesh is both fascinating and at times impenetrable, keeping viewers at an emotional distance. Her guardedness also seems a protective gesture, to shield Sally from the truth she both recognizes and fears.
There is a steeliness and even a mercilessness to Sally's perspective that complicates her work. Critics of Sally's work might tolerate such things in a male photographer but can be shocked when a woman wields such flinty certainty. It's part of the controversy that has surrounded her work. For some people, Sally's early images of her often naked children evoked the unpleasant sensation of a woman putting aside the protective mantle of motherhood to document the children's sultry, unbridled nature. Sally's images of her husband bring to mind the Internet scandal kicked up when essayist Ayelet Waldman described her love for her husband, writer Michael Chabon, as more urgent than her love for her children. Sally offered up her children freely but as death crowds in, she is deeply protective of her husband's image. In Proud Flesh she keeps her husband to herself.