The Appalachian Housewife: Sally Mann at the George Eastman House

Article excerpt

Had I been content with only one bowl of pasta, I probably would have found a place to park at the George Eastman House in Rochester Thursday evening, October 28th. But alas, I was not, and so I joined the others feverishly circling the stuffed parking lot two minutes before six o'clock, before the lecture given by internationally acclaimed photographer Sally Mann began.

I parked on a neighboring street, slipped into the theatre relatively unnoticed, and took a back-row seat, catty-corner to Mann. She began with her earliest work taken while a student at Bennington College. She projected a series of photographs along with a poorly crafted contact sheet, chemically stained, with inconsistent exposure between frames. She laughed.

Mann clicked through a list of her favorite images, including "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude." The portrait, from her book Immediate Family, is of her son waist-deep in Virginia's Maury River. His hands--fingers spread--graze the surface of the quiet water while his eyes, black and narrow, attest to the mystery of childhood. It took her seven weeks to get the image perfect. "I had to buy Emmett so many things to get him to go back into the water," she confessed. "The Perfect Tomato" pictured in Still Time is, however, Mann's favorite photograph. Jesse, her eldest daughter, is bathed in a mystic white light while nude and perfectly poised on her tiptoes atop an outside table. "It's the best damn photo I've ever taken," Mann remarked.

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Apart from the desire to dig out her Lecia, consequence to viewing a current Robert Frank exhibit, Mann favors turn-of-the-century large-format cameras. Her most recent work, bound and titled What Remains, was photographed with the antiquated collodion process using glass plates. The book delivers a provocative and beautiful look at mortality. It includes photographs depicting the bones of Eva, her dead dog, decaying bodies from a forensic study site, leftover blood and car tracks from the killing that took place on her property in rural Virginia, images at Antietam, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and close-up, chilling portraits of her children.

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"Our kids," she writes in the introduction to What Remains, "chalk up my 'death thing' to genetics, blaming it, along with other things I do, on my father. …