Jessie Mann, the eldest daughter of the legendary American photographer Sally Mann, talks about the creative universe she has been part of all her life, her unfinished imaginary biography and the art of being a muse.
Surely, you remember her. That girl in a white dress posing with a candy cigarette. The tense string of her white teenage figure at the wooden sun deck. The elder child of the legendary trio of Sally Mann’s genuine, bold and free kids who conquered the whole world almost 25 years ago by showing up in the pages of the photobook «Immediate Family». The intention to learn more about Jessie’s life “after the Family” appeared when finding myself by chance at the show of the biographical documentary about the backstage of Mann’s “studio” I saw an episode of the interview with Jessie. She was around 15 then, but on her modelling for her mother she was dwelling as if on a serious professional job – both in a challenging and thrilling way. Her charisma, self-determination of an adult person who clearly knows and genuinely believes in what she is saying, as well as her total absence of shyness impressed me. The emotional background made me want to look for contacts with Jessie.
The plan to learn more about this icon of the American photography fortunately succeeded. Jessie answered my email rather quickly, and her answers only proved her extraordinary nature.
Bleek Magazine: Not so much is known about your recent activities and interests. You majored in Psychology, tried writing, painting and modelling. As far as I understand, your collaboration with Len Prince which resulted in the series «Self-Possessed» in 2006 became a significant stage of your creative career. What about your current situation – is art still in the heart of your interest?
Jessie Mann: Right now I am in graduate school Virginia Tech, I got my masters in Science and Technology Studies and am working on my PhD in Translational Biology, Medicine and Health. My research is on neurorehabilitation. I am still making art and have a show coming up in the spring, another collaborative series, with artist Liz Liguori, and we are exposing photo paper with lasers and painting it with photo chemicals. But my main focus is school right now.
I did not think going into college that I would have anything to do with art making, but I had grown up making art, it can be a bit of disease, so found I just could not stop. I will always paint and write and muse. It is very much a core part of my personality. But, to be honest, I really did not enjoy the professional life of the artist, and ultimately prefer to have a job and make art, rather than have making art be my job.
Bleek Magazine: All the world knows you from those early childhood images made by your mother, Sally Mann, and your sudden appearance under numerous sometimes quite rough but at the same time quite ironic iconic masks in «Self-Possessed» made quite a surprise, at the same time clearly revealing your acting and modelling skills. What is the story behind this project and what did the project mean for you personally?
Jessie Mann: Len and I still have a bunch of work we have not shown and plan to continue our collaboration indefinitely, so I am happy to talk about the project.
I had modeled for Justine Kurland and Katie Granan, while I was in high school, and I had talked to them about this idea I had about the role of the model/muse and the act of being in art and they were very encouraging, and nudged me along to pursue it.
So, while I was in college, I started developing the idea and shopping it around. A friend of a friend recommended Len to me and we did a trial run, just a play day in his studio, and it was clear from that first shoot that we had a great chemistry and made good photos together. So then we were off and running.
We are a good team, I do all this research, I come to the shoots with these binders of reference images, and then Len refuses to look at them, so he does not get tainted by other people’s ideas. But then, he always ends up getting the photo I had in my head.
We use 8×10 Polaroids so we can discuss the image and make changes. Len is usually two steps ahead of me, he has a great eye for what works and what does not. At the same time he is completely receptive when I want to try something that seems unusual or risky. He is not too precious with the image and he understands that all of these photos are meant to be taken with a wink.
Bleek Magazine: In the text about you and Len Prince I found on «The New Yorker» site I came across the quotation when Len described you like this, «If anyone is art, it’s Jessy». If you are art, what is then art for you? And if we take the modelling part, in particular, how hard is it for a model not to lose herself in that multitude of masks she has constantly to try on?
Jessie Mann: That was one of the main topics I wanted to address with this project, this idea of the tragic muse, the idea that something is being taken from the subject, that the muse is at risk. And all of these conceptions we have about the role of the model, I think are simply because women are most often the subjects in art. It reflects a viewpoint where women are vulnerable, weak, and at risk of being exploited. Why is it so hard for people to conceive of the subject as a willing participant in the art making, as an involved and self-determining agent in the production of the image, or film, or painting, what have you?
It was offensive to me as a child that people would make the assumptions about my mother’s work that they did. We all worked hard on those photos and we are proud of them, so to have critics suggest that we were being exploited, undermines our engagement and collaboration. That is what happens to women and children in art, they get mistaken for objects rather than agents. So, I felt I was in a unique position, given my already established role in art, to make a point about what a muse is and does and what it means to embody an artistic concept or character.
Well, by our teenage years we were not modeling, but much of the process of was like this ongoing art lesson. We would look through all kinds of books, – from mom’s contemporaries, like Nan Goldin or Elliott Erwitt to Renaissance paintings and ancient figurines. I was particularly fond of Donna Ferrato’s work, I did a book report on her book «Living with the Enemy» in the 5th or 6th grade. Anyway, it was all part of a process of learning the image, what made a good image. And I was looking at it from a model’s perspective, what is it about that pose or that placement that makes this a good image. It was fun and educational. And so that influenced how we approached the images.
Bleek Magazine: Maybe you can give some particular examples of the images that were «staged», or inspired, by you mostly?
Jessie Mann: Giving examples like that is always hard, primarily because of the way collaborations work, it is hard to say, «I was the one that suggested x, y, or z,» because it is all building and growing on itself in the process. You might not have thought to do that if the other person was not talking about whatever it was they were talking about that morning while you set up the equipment. And so it becomes more of an improve performance where each step is a reaction to something. «What if I lift the dress like this?», «Ok, well if you lift it like that what if you turn this way?». It is an evolving engagement.
Bleek Magazine: In the interviews you are often called «a muse» and «a model». How do you feel about these definitions? Was it hard for you to establish yourself as an independent artist and writer rather that a model and muse?
Jessie Mann: Obviously, those are terms I am very proud to own but I feel their meanings are often misrepresented and misinterpreted. I think that the role of the muse is an artistic one. That being in art is a form of making art. There is a give and take between the subject and artist that is collaborative and the end result depends on that exchange. There were definitely hurdles to get over, you do not know how many times people would assume Len was my lover or assume the work was by him and I was the model in his series of work. We learned to be very careful and send out very carefully worded write up’s and invitations, as in «Collaborative works by Len Prince and Jessie Mann» and still the newspapers would write about Len’s photographs of me. And that is not at all how Len and I feel about it. These are collaborative works, that is their whole purpose.
And, I should note, that in general, I am a big believer in artistic collaboration. I have had some amazing experiences working with others, and as much as I love to be along in the studio, or to write, there is something amazingly powerful about what happens during a collaboration. I have co-directed the Mountain Lake Workshop a couple of times, it was co-founded by John Cage, and I am enamored of that whole experience and the concepts behind workshops like it.
There is something magical that happens in that movement between when the paint drips off the brush and when it hits the canvas, and that magic is only amplified when you have a group of people working together.
Bleek Magazine: I know you have a very strong passion for reading, and among some of the authors you mention there are a few Russian names, including Vladimir Nabokov. Don’t tell me you never compared yourself with Lolita… What is your opinion about this novel of Nabokov’s?
Jessie Mann: Ha, this is a fun question. I have never gotten this one before, but admire you for asking. I love my Russian literature and Nabokov just blows me away. Lolita is my least favorite, Ada my favorite. I was taught Lolita, though, by an amazing Russian woman, a mentor to me in college, and I’ve always really enjoyed her interpretation of the novel. Where it is really about America, in that we eat our veggies covered in cheese and butter, we are a country that eats candy cookie cereal for breakfast. The plot of Lolita is just the cheese he poured on his prose so that we’d eat our veggies. A reflection on what we American’s like, salacious stories with murder and sex and little nymphets.
Bleek Magazine: What do you like about Ada’s character, in particular?
Jessie Mann: Well, I am not sure she is my favorite character, but it is my favorite novel because it is his most Rushdie-esq, it is where he most seems to stray farthest into this new meta hinterland (although I accept the same could be said of Lolita). Ada feels to me as if you are being woven into this narrative with a warf of myth a woof of transparency. And he is at his most playful and his most Proustian.
Bleek Magazine: If you were to write a fictional autobiography about yourself, who would be the central protagonist, where, when and how this person would be living? What type of life and what sort of message would this person be giving to the world?
Jessie Mann: This is also a funny question because I did just this, attempted to write a fictional autobiography. I was, of course, the central protagonist, but I was attempting to sort of make that character something chimeric, half real, half fictional. I love Rushdie’s writing and I wanted to play with that slip and slide between the real world and the collective unconscious made of myth, art and popular culture. To create a character of myself that had my history but was also this created character that arose from being known as an art character. But, I am no Rushdie, and it was a tall order. Maybe I’ll finish it one day.
As far as the message to the world, that is: art making does something real to existence, that there is an interaction and interplay between the real and the mythic. That our simulations are just as important, just as active, as what coalesces as reality.