Tag Archives: Sally Mann

A Deal With the Devil

Intersection, Hwy 49 and Hwy 61, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 4×5 “Wet Plate”

Above is a picture of  the Mississippi crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in return for the ability to play guitar. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out well for Mr. Johnson; while he created some great blues, he died young and broke and unrecognized, his grave somewhere unknown in the Delta. It’s been sung and talked about enough in popular American culture to have become a recognizable thing globally. The Crossroads. Located at the corner of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I took the photo on Highway 61 just north of the Highway 49 intersection so I could get the dead dog in the picture.  Seemed appropriate. If you look to the right side of the photo you’ll see the traffic lights that sit at the intersection.

The bargain Johnson supposedly struck at this intersection is what we call  “Faustian,” not really a ‘bargain’ at all, where someone trades something essential for personal gain, the gain being to receive what they think will make them happy but doesn’t. It makes things worse when all is said and done.  If you’re familiar with classical European literature you’ve read about Dr. Faustus, the famous scientist who trades his spiritual and moral integrity for knowledge and power and then comes to a ruinous end. Writing a gloss on the legend in his play Faust, Goethe took some liberties with the story, now a wager between Dr Faust, who can find no meaning in his life, and Mephisto, the Devil, who promises to give his life meaning if Faust  agrees to serve him forever after.

The the story is this: a man strikes a deal, depriving himself of a freely-willed human future in return for the quick and easy, a quicksilver shortcut to the goal, and in the process loses the good of what he possessed without gaining anything better when it’s all done, in fact, what’s been gained is a much impoverished version of what he started with. It’s called “a deal with the Devil.”


Somewhere in the Mississippi Delta (Can’t Remember), 4×5 “Wet Plate”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’d recently read Sally Mann’s Hold Still, a great read if you’re interested in the interior lives and thought processes of artists. There’s few photographers I’d class as ‘artists,’ but Sally Mann would be one of them, so I was interested to read what she had to say. In the process, I got to thinking about her use of a view camera and the slow, deliberate nature of her craft. It’s so unlike what digital, or even 35mm film, allows. I also like the results. There’s nothing more beautiful than an 8×10 b&w contact print. She’s also a Southerner, as am I, with an eye for the Gothic details of life in Deep South America. Her recent work involved a trip from Memphis to New Orleans via the Mississippi Delta taking pictures of things that caught her eye along the way. She did it with her view camera and with wet plates, liquid emulsions she brushed onto 8×10 glass plates and used as the negatives for her 8×10. In addition to involving a lot of prep work, she’d also have to immediately develop the plates in the back of her pickup under a black cloth. What she gets when she gets a good shot is something really interesting, imprecise, sometimes blurry and diffuse, often with serendipitous features that give a powerful character to the final prints. It’s obviously a difficult process to master, which gives heft to the work because they’re the result of skill and hard mastery. They say “this is something that took skill and hard work and incredible perseverance, and in the end produced something beautiful.”

Which got me thinking: I’ve been through the Delta a number of times with my camera, so I know it well, and I’ve also spent some time with alternative processes, and – you know – the idea of shooting the Delta with a view camera and some funky emulsions sounded like a great trip, so I started thinking of what I’d need to do the work. I’ve got a view camera and tripod, I’ve got the time; all I’d really need to do is figure out how to do the emulsions. Or even simpler, I could do set pieces on regular 8×10 negative film – they still make it – and then contact print it. That would be a fun project, and certainly one I could exhibit if the work was decent.

But then I had a further thought: I wonder, in all of the post-processing software I’ve got loaded onto my computer but never much use, do I have a “wet plate emulation?” I searched around and, yes, I did. So…I pulled up my Mississippi Delta photos and after cropping them to 4×5 for authenticity, started running a few of them through the wet plate emulation and damn!, a lot of them looked really good. Exhibition quality if printed on good pigment paper at 8×10. It really is powerful work if I might say so myself.


But…there’s something wrong with this. I’m not sure I can articulate it, except to say that my ‘wet plates’ and Sally Mann’s wet plates occupy two different poles of artistic merit. Assuming you think my wet plates are as evocative as Ms. Mann’s from a visual standpoint, you could say they have equal creative merit, but is that really the criterion for assessing the relative worth of our Delta work, or is there something more, something more evanescent but crucial, that’s present in her work and absent in mine?

I would argue there is. Her’s possess an authenticity that mine mimics, even though they might look similar technically. She dragged an 8×10 view camera around for 1000 miles, jugs of dangerous chemicals in tow, which relegated her going places that would accommodate her. I drove around, pointed my Leica M8 at everything and shot. At each location, she’d spend an hour or two developing her plates, drying them, inspecting them, repeating the process until she got what she wanted. I pushed a shutter and chimped the results, brought thousands back on an SD card and ran the keepers thru emulation software on my Mac.  Once home she fastidiously contact printed her best plates, producing 20 or so exquisite silver prints. I tee’d up my Epson R3000, loaded in the Moab Lasal Exhibition Luster Paper, and effortlessly printed off 40 8×10 prints that could pass in a pinch for contact prints.

So…am I going to exhibit my Delta “wet prints?” No. Because to do so would be deceptive, although many photographers born in the digital age might disagree. It’s the result that matters, right? Tell that to Sally Mann. That’s the Devil’s Bargain we’ve made with digital. What used to be the product of craft and deep skill is now just a mouse click away. We still get the same results, but the honest pride of work well done has been taken from the process. We’ve wished for one thing and received another in the guise of the quick and easy, the thing that we thought would liberate us. Same thing Robert Johnson did at those crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississsippi, the story old as civilization.

Time, Memory and Photography

“Where is my home? It is indistinct as an old cellar hole, now a faint indentation, merely, in a farmer’s field. And I sit by the old site by the stump of an old oak that once grew there. Such is the nature of where we have lived.” Henry David Thoreau

Above is a picture of what remains of 9 Grand St, Wayne, New Jersey. It’s now just a muddy patch of bog in a run-down working class neighborhood, mostly abandoned, prone to flooding by the Passaic River, which it backs up against.  Back in the 70’s, when I lived there, it used to flood occasionally, but nothing like it does now, and most of the houses on the street, where people I knew lived, have either been torn down or are unoccupied,  surrendered by owners who cashed out insurance claims, gave up and moved elsewhere.

I’d been in the area visiting my mother, age 80, who lives nearby, and decided to ride by and see the old neighborhood. The house is gone, though I recognize a few trees in the yard and can, with a bit of imagination, remember how it sat on the land. What’s interesting to me is how vivid my memories are of this place, in part because I lived here during a time in my life when I was young and healthy and had my whole adult life ahead of me. Having a number of amorous young women living within a stone’s throw of my bedroom window didn’t hurt either. I also had a camera, something I carried everywhere with me, so I documented much of the life I then lived.


Fun Times at 9 Grand St circa 1977

I’ve been thinking a lot about photography and memory since I read Sally Mann’s Hold Still. Sally Mann is a favorite of mine. She’s made her name documenting life and family growing up in the Shenandoah Valley. Her photography is beautiful and moving and anyone with an interest in documentary or fine art photography should be familiar with it. She’s also a brilliant writer and a strikingly beautiful woman even now. I won’t lie – I’ve got a serious crush on her.  Unlike most books written by photographers or about photography, Hold Still is a great read, both as an auto-biographical narrative and as a means to understand Ms. Mann’s photography. It’s the product of a lifetime spent documenting her life in an intentional way, a lesson of the payoff for photographers with the foresight to habitually record the quotidian details of everyday life.

Hold Still got me thinking about the emotional aspect of memory, how memories change over the years, some taking on broader emotional meaning and some fading to irrelevancy. It’s inevitable to an extent, new experiences encoding over old memories and changing those older memory’s salience, this being the normal process of how humans form a narrative of their lives. In particular, what I’ve been thinking about is how my interest in photography affected that process, warping it in a way that tracks the intensity of my photographic interest over the years.

In 1977 I was 18, a complete and total fuck-up, having had decided a year before to boycott my senior year of high school at an evangelical church school to set out on my own, which brought me to 9 Grand St, where I – typical dropout – did drugs, drank beer, chased women ( girls actually),  avoided work, and documented much of it with my beat up Nikon F and later my new Leica M5.  Nobody I knew had a Leica or even knew what they were. Leica’s were those odd cameras you saw in the back of Modern Photography, completely unlike the SLR’s everyone was buying, rare and expensive and mysterious. I remember being fascinated that, unlike other rangefinder cameras, whose market by the 70’s had been reduced to inexpensive fixed-lens consumer grade snapshot shooters, you could change lenses on a Leica. Wow. For some reason, a rangefinder with a 21mm wide angle or 90mm tele with auxiliary finder intrigued me, being the sort of thing that would signal to happy-snappers that what I was doing photographically was serious. I eventually bought one, a story I won’t bore you with as I’ve mentioned it often elsewhere.

Above are two sequential frames taken in that house, as best I can tell from the first roll of film I ran through my new Leica, a 20 exposure roll of Ilford FP4. That’s me to the left, and on the right, my girlfriend at the time. I have a clear recollection of it: the shiny new M5 passed between us while I shot a test roll and tried to figure out my new camera. If I look smug and self-satisfied, it’s because I was. Young and handsome, a new Leica, attractive and willing girlfriend – perfect. Or, at least, that’s what I think when I look at those pictures. The reality at the time, meanwhile, less idyllic, just another confused kid trying to figure out where his life might take him.

That I even have these memories is because I memorialized them with a camera. Had I not, the specifics would be long forgotten, the young woman a blurred memory. She was a summer fling, nothing special, but it’s amazing to me the clarity of my memory of her, all of which comes back when I see the photograph – the way she talked, the way she moved, the small particulars that made her her. A few years later I got serious about my life – college, then graduate school, then law school, in the process developing my first real adult relationships with women – but those subsequent memories, the one’s I should remember with particularity, are often less precise, blurry to the point of irretrievability, because I had put my camera away to get on with life and hadn’t documented any of it.


I recently read a study that claims photographing our experiences impairs our ability to remember them. That isn’t the case for me. What I’ve photographed over the years comes back viscerally to me when I review old negatives in a way those not photographed can’t. Looking through contact sheets from my Grand St years, I’d spy a person I hadn’t thought of in 40 years, and instantly their name and some buried memory involving them would come back to me.

The difference may be this: today, iPhone photography is so quick and easy, so constantly available, that it’s become a rote, unthinking activity. I watched 17 y/o’s at a birthday party last night, hundreds of photos snapped with iPhones – along with the required gathering around the screen to look at the results, most destined for the digital trash can. Watching these kids – the same age as I was when I took those Grand St photos, I couldn’t help think that they were missing much of the experience itself, staring at their screens, texting instead of chatting, obsessively photographing the particulars – the food, the drink, the conviviality forced for the camera – instead of experiencing it.

Either that, or it’s become a means of distancing oneself from an activity, a way of keeping reality at arm’s length. You see this in art museums or tourist destinations, people with phone out, staring at screens, not experiencing what’s around them.

Film photography has, for me, always been about being in the experience, both the experience of the photographic act and the experience of what’s in front of me. It brings with it a level of mindfulness, an intentionality that comes from a certain focus required of a manual camera and film. It’s the sort of mindfulness that creates enduring memories – and tangible negatives to refer to years later. I can still remember passing that Leica between us, 40 years ago, sitting in my living room on 9 Grand Street with that girl. I remember her name, the contours of her body, the things we did. Had I grown up in the digital age, I’m not sure I’d have either those photos or those memories. Something to think about.