"I look, all the time, at the people and places I care about, and I look with both ardor and frank, aesthetic, cold appraisal. And I look with the passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart, there must also be a splinter of ice."
Sally Mann, Artist's Statement
Was Ever Love, 2009
Ponder Heart, 2009
Today I went to see Sally Mann's stunning show Proud Flesh, a series of nude studies of her husband, to whom she has been married for 40 years and who has muscular dystrophy. It was a project that the two of them had talked about for 6 years. Speaking of the images in an interview, she said, " No one's done anything like this before – and I think only a woman could have done it. Pictures of women taken by men tend to have a sexual element; with these, there's a tenderness. Men usually like to appear strong and powerful, particularly if they're going to take their clothes off; and most homoerotic pictures show men as sex objects, looking very potent. I don't think Larry looks impotent, but he definitely looks vulnerable." And indeed he does look vulnerable, in many of the pictures. An extraordinary sense of intimacy and trust comes through in these pictures, in which he allows the unflinching gaze of the camera to explore every inch of his afflicted body. Not that Mann emphasizes any manifestation of the terrible disease, but it is there, albeit in the most unobtrusive way. As she wrote in her artist's statement, "Larry and I both understand how ethically complex and potent the act of making photographs is, how freighted with issues of honesty, responsibility, power, and complicity, and how so many good images come at the expense of the sitter, in one way or another. These new images, we both knew, could come at his." The work is a hauntingly beautiful and tender testament of their love, of what comes of loving someone for 40 years, of the complexities of such an enduring relationship between a man and a woman. But it is also a courageous act of looking. As she explains, "Within traditional narratives, women who look, especially women who look unflinchingly at men, have been punished. Take poor Psyche, punished for all time for daring to lift the lantern to finally see her lover." Mann looks at her husband's body with indescribable tenderness, but also with unblinking honesty. There is such an emotional intensity in these photographs that at times is almost painful.
My favorite picture is the one above, named after the Greek god of blacksmiths. Here he poses in a classical god-like stance, his head cropped out at the top of the image and his body seemingly balanced on the strong fingers of his left hand, spread out decisively on the table. A large metallic crackling pattern – a serendipitous effect from Mann's signature wet-plate collodion photographic process – slashes across his torso, dividing it into light and dark halves, shattering the Olympian bearing, just as Hephaestus was exiled from Olympus.