When Harry Met Sally
The male gaze is almost always sexually charged whether it is in the service of art or in everyday interactions between men and women. In polite society the sexual is always neatly folded and tucked away less offense and lawsuits arise. But an artist, especially an artist whose model and muse also happens to be a wife or partner is free to express and explore. There are countless examples, from Emmett Gowin’s tender and sexy pictures of Edith to Alfred Stieglitz’s visual molestation of Georgia O’keefe. There are some notable exceptions to this of course, as in everything. Nobuyashi Araki’s series of his wife on their honeymoon and marriage, Sentimental Journey, was a loving gaze and prescient farewell (his wife passed away soon afterwards). But even here there is an element of the sexual.
A better example is Harry Callahan and his wife Eleanor. Harry Callahan’s passion for his wife was very seldom expressed through his pictures. Callahan at first used his model as a tool to explore technical matters in his camera work and as time passed and his daughter Barbara was born, he mixed this with the documentation of his world. In all his pictures of Eleanor you are grounded in the world (at the beach, in their apartment, home, neighborhood) which just happens to be the world which Harry Callahan inhabits and is documenting. His photographs were straight, unmanipulated and sharply focused. In all his photos of Eleanor you can see his appreciation for her form, the roundness of her hips and buttocks, the flow of her hair. Like most men he just enjoyed looking at the woman he loved; the woman he found to be aesthetically pleasing and like most men he created monuments to what he found pleasing and important. Men are highly visual when it comes to the appreciation of the opposite sex. It is the visual that first grabs men’s attention. The emotional is secondary.
I was thinking all this as I wandered the space that was The Gagosian Gallery on September 14, the opening of Sally Mann’s Proud Flesh exhibition. It was interesting to contrast Ms. Mann’s gaze with that of Mr. Callahan’s. They were/are both obviously in love with their respective spouses. But Ms. Mann’s gaze is softer and more sentimental and prone to the psychological. In this series of her husband Larry she is creating memories of her love for her husband. She is recording feelings and creating beautiful worlds in which to house these feelings. The environment her husband inhabits is dreamlike and in so inhabiting this world he becomes more mythical. He is not the vulnerable, physically compromised, older man. He is the powerful, handsome, Hercules she fell in love with all those years ago; the strong arm, the broad back, the handsome bearded face in profile. She is creating a profound and loving keepsake to look at sometime in the future when the inevitable has already passed. Isn’t that what all photographs are?
I am a great admirer of Ms. Mann’s landscapes. They are the most original, emotional and spiritual landscapes anyone in the history of the medium has ever made. She is one of the few artists who always gets me wanting to go back in the darkroom after seeing her prints on the wall. They are superb. Her technical skills as a printer are still evident in this series of pictures and these prints are just as beautiful. With this series though she is back to making pictures of her family. But now she is going back to a time of love and discovery for her and Larry Mann, a time when they were discovering each other, a time before immediate family concerns. Together and alone once again. Harry Callahan stopped photographing Eleanor after a time. I don’t think I will be able to say the same about Sally Mann.