Posts Tagged ‘Sally Mann’

Photography Documentaries I’ve Liked

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Photography Documentaries I’ve Liked

By David Cobb

 

It’s been a long time since the days of the boring and staid documentary. We’re now in the “Golden Age” of this genre, and there have been a number of good photography documentaries released over the past few years. I find that sometimes it’s difficult to make a decision on a film when I love the images, but the quality of the documentary is not great. (Maybe there are poor production values, or the film needed an editor, or it’s just not that interesting. When that happens, I prefer to look at a book of the photographer’s images.)

All the films on this list are easily accessible for viewing, and for the purposes of this list I haven’t included any television series. What follows are a few photography documentaries that I’ve liked from the many I’ve watched.

  1. The Salt of the Earth – (2014, Director Wim Wenders) This film relives the career of Sebastiao Salgado and covers his major body of work and exhibitions. From the opening scene of images at the gold mines of Serra Pelada to his work on his most recent project Genesis, the film leaves no doubt that Salgado is one of the greatest photographers ever.
  2. What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann – (2005, Director Steven Cantor) An exploration into the creative mind of an artist. Sally Mann discusses her work through her successes, failures, her influences, and disappointments. There is something for every photographer to relate to in this film.
  3. Finding Vivian Maier – (2013, Directors John Maloof, Charlie Siskel) Possibly the most famous of all films on this list, Finding Vivian Maier is a movie about a woman who blended in and surreptitiously photographed non-stop for years with no one really knowing she was amassing a large catalogue of images. After her death her work was recently discovered, and the documentary pieces together her life from clues, photographs, and conversations with (now adult) children she looked after while fulfilling her job as a nanny. Her life is a bit of a mystery, but her outstanding photographic work shines a light into her spirit.
  4. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – (2012, Director Alison Klayman) Ai Weiwei is a multi-media artist and dissident with homes in the U.S. and China. He’s known in photography for his “giving the finger” images and also his selfies. He might be described as Warhol, Picasso, Calder, and Banksy, rolled into one. This isn’t truly a photography documentary, but it’s fascinating and thought-provoking.
  5. Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe – (2007, Director James Crump) A thoughtful film which brings to life the professional and personal relationship between Robert Mapplethorpe and his benefactor Sam Wagstaff.
  6. Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters – (2012, Director Ben Shapiro) The incredible production value, difficulty, and creativity of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs is on display in this mesmerizing documentary. The filming follows him during his work on his Beneath the Roses concept.
  7. Meru – (2015, Jimmy Chin, Chai Vasarhelyi) Ok, it’s not really a photography documentary, but photographer and videographer Jimmy Chin does a spectacular job of filming this first ascent. Teamed with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, the climb of the imposing shark fin of India’s Mount Meru gave me the willies just watching. There is a section of this film which showcases some of the climbing photography techniques that Jimmy Chin uses when on assignment.
  8. War Photographer – (2001, Director Christian Frei) A documentary of photojournalist James Nachtwey who lets his images do the talking. He’s won numerous awards and the highest honors in his profession, and this documentary captures him on assignment in Kosovo, Indonesia, Africa, and the West Bank. The film opens with an adage from Robert Capa, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and Nachtwey lives by these words. His photographic records of war, famine, and poverty are devastating, and his philosophy on why he’s a war photographer is fascinating. 
  9. Bill Cunningham New York – (2010, Director Richard Press) A delightful film which follows photographer Bill Cunningham snapping fashion images on the streets of New York. Cunningham carries this documentary with his outlook on life, simple lifestyle, fashion eye, dedication, and his infectious exuberance. If you’re ever down in the dumps or want to get out of a photography rut, this film is a dandy pick-me-up.
  10. Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens – (2008, Director Barbara Leibovitz) This study in the life and career of Annie Leibovitz from her early days at the Rolling Stone to her work for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and her more personal work shows that even someone at the top of the photography world can still make mistakes and grow from them. Her work is astounding and her creative passion is an inspiration. The film is less in-depth than I would have liked, as some major portions of her life are discussed only on the surface.
  11. Inside Out: The People’s Art Project – (2013, Alastair Siddons) Street photographer JR takes his TED Talks Prize and gives it back to the people to create their own art. His world photography project helps humanize the disenfranchised from Pakistan to South Dakota as they produce giant portraits to post on the streets. They can no longer be ignored and must be seen, as they create their own power through imagery. The film is truly an inspiration to witness the influence of photography changing the common man on the street.

If there are other films you think I might be leaving off this list, let me know. Fellow Photo Cascadia members Adrian Klein and Erin Babnik shared films they liked such as Salt and The Quest for Inspiration. I haven’t seen them yet, but I’m on the lookout for these two. I hope you enjoy the films I’ve listed; many are available on Netflix so they’re easy to find and most have shorter run times. Now curl up with a bowl of popcorn and learn from the masters.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

Hold Still Sally Mann Cover

 

Book Review by David Cobb

“Unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art.” Sally Mann

Sally Mann photographed what she loved: her land, her husband, her children, herself; but where does her creativity come from?  In her new memoir Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (2015 Little, Brown, and Company) Mann gives us insights into this world by exploring her life, family, friends, death, and sense of place. She never writes directly about her creativity in this memoir, but it exudes from the pages; like the oppressive humidity from one of her summer Virginia landscapes.

 

In the chapter ‘Hold Still,” Mann goes through the process by which she photographed her children, from the mundane to the disturbing. Her likes, dislikes, successes, and failures are all there to see. The images from this time period brought her celebrity status and with it controversy, and that fame and contention added a creative temperance to her psych. She sums up this thinking with a quote from writer Adam Gopnik, “When we hit pay dirt, we often find quicksand beneath it.”

 

Mann seems to credit her mother’s side of the family for not only her work ethic, but also her romanticism of the land, her love of place, and the land which she inhabits. If it’s her family and her own life on the land which built a foundation for her landscape images, perhaps it’s photographer Michael Miley and her artist friend Cy Twombly who helped shape and inspire her landscapes. She photographed Cy Twombly’s art studio in her early years and noticed by doing so her work “changed from documentary to evocative.” Mann’s landscapes aren’t the usual fare you might be used to seeing on the internet—they can be dark, moody, and claustrophobic, while also being timeless or by hearkening back to a bygone era.

 

Maybe her landscape images changed because of her father’s influence. His life-long fascination with death and his own stoic demise appears to influence her last chapter of creative energy. After a death on her land, she wondered how the land had changed for her with that incident and set about capturing it with images. She writes that “It’s not that we southerners are exactly in love with death, but there is no question that, given our history, we’re on a first-name basis with it.” For me, her photography at this time goes to another level. Before my workshop in Florida this year at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden, a professor sent me an email question about “how to capture kami (spirits) of the garden?” I could now point him to the ending chapters of this book as a guideline.

 

From the death on her own land, she travels to Civil War battlefields such as Antietam to represent the landscape and death that took place there over 150 years earlier. These chapters are well-covered in the documentary What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann. The film also mentions the irony of her collodion process in the creation of these prints, and that collodion was also used to hold wounds together for the injured on the Civil War battlefield.

 

Her work changes from the metaphorical to the literal, as she photographs at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility known as the Body Farm. The program records decomposition and decay of the human corpse. Her work here for the New York Times Magazine added to her closing chapters and furthered her creative exploration of death.

 

Overall, Sally Mann’s Hold Still is an outstanding book on many levels. Intellectually interesting, whimsical, and humorous; and at times it carries the shock value of a who-done-it novel. Ultimately for me this memoir is about creativity, and it’s a look into the soul of an artist. By taking a page from Sally Mann, I wondered how those around me and the land I hold dear influences me and contribute to my artistic process–and that’s the kind of thinking that can help artistic creativity and growth.