Just like many of the other greats of this world (Hunter S. Thompson, Gandhi, Britney Spears, for example) Sally Mann has been the source of much debate, controversy, and of course, celebration. Before getting into the reasons for this I thought it might be a good idea to look at her style of photography, that is, the things that make her work immediately recognisable.
1: She works almost exclusively with large format antique cameras and employs early photographic techniques. She is known for her use of the collodion process. This is as a wet-plate process - essentially, a clear glass plate is coated with the chemicals like ether and collodion. Once these have reacted together, they are used in the camera, and an image can be exposed onto the wet plate. It all sounds pretty easy, however, the whole process has to be done very quickly. Once the plate is coated with the chemicals, it is transferred into the camera (while still wet) and the image is exposed to the glass plate. After this, there are only a few minutes before the plate dries. In this limited amount of time and while the plate is still wet it needs to be removed and washed with grain alcohol and sulphate. This is when the image emerges on the plate. The reason I wanted to point this out is because Mann makes a very deliberate choice to use these (often laborious) techniques. She is not out shooting with an SLR and post-processing her images in Photoshop. Once you begin to look at only a few of her images it’s very easy to begin seeing a common style throughout her work as a result of the techniques she uses. You can click here to read an interview on Art21 with Mann where she talks about the collodion process.
2: There are often what classicists would call ‘flaws’ with her work – scratches, over/under exposures, reflections etc. This is directly related to my previous point. She is using old cameras and techniques so there are obviously going to be some abnormalities in the images she is producing. Instead of detracting from the images she produces, however, they only seem to add to the final images she produces. They become a part of the image as much as the physical subject she is photographing. I think it’s crucial to remember that she chooses to leave these as a part of the final image.
3: Many of her portrait shots are posed. This will be important to remember later when taking a look at the shots that caused most of the controversy and debate.
4: Despite (or maybe because of) the controversies that resulted from some of her work she remains one of the most respected and commercially successful photographers in the world.
I really think it’s important to consider these things before trying to analyse Mann’s work. To me, her images are fantastic on their own, but it’s only after researching and reading more about her techniques and style, that I really began to appreciate and value her work.
I often question if it’s actually necessary to know about the biography of a photographer in order to appreciate their output. Most of the time I think not. I’m generally of the opinion that you can fully appreciate a photograph (which is, of course, a highly subjective experience) and know absolutely nothing about the photographer themselves. What I think knowledge of a photographer’s history can do, however, is help you to understand their work a little more. Appreciation versus understanding is the debate then. Well, it is in my head anyway.
With this in mind, I thought it would be useful to look into the biography of Sally Mann in order to see if this will help to understand her body of work. Mann was born and raised in Lexington, Virginia in 1951. Lexington is a small town with a population of under 7,000 people. Her father was a GP and her mother ran a bookstore. In the preface of her book Immediate Family, Mann writes about her childhood. She would have experienced her formative years during the hippy ’60s. Her account of her father in the preface explains that he was a non-conformist - to me, he sounds like a fantastic eccentric, the type you only ever read about but never meet. It was he who introduced Mann to photography. There’s a great interview here which describes the relationships she had with her parents.
Also, there is a video on Art21 here which has Mann explaining the type of childhood she had:
“I just ran wild for the first seven years of my life…and then went to school and didn’t take to it too kindly…but I was eventually “civilised”. I guess that’s a little how I raised my own kids…and a little why I was so non-plussed when people were surprised to see the pictures of my children without shirts and pants and running wild too. It seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do."
The later images that she would take of her children, seem to be so directly inspired by what Mann saw as a natural and uncontroversial aspect of her own youth - being naked and unabashed around family. Mann has spoken about how she finds it strange that people can react so violently when they see her images - to her, there is nothing untoward about them. This is where her critics beg to differ of course.
Mann has three children who became integral to her work, Jessie, Emmett and Virginia. She has been married to Larry Mann for over 40 years. At this point, I think it’s fair to point out that I have mentioned the main subjects of her work - the Virginia landscape and people, her husband and her three children. Mann holds a BA from Hollins College and an MA in writing from the same school, where she graduated in 1975. According to her CV at the bottom of the Edwynn Houk gallery page, here, she also studied photography at Praestegaard Film School, in 1971, Aegean School of Fine Arts in 1972, Apeiron in 1973 and the Ansel Adams Yosemite Workshop in 1973.
Mann held her first solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., in 1977. Since then she has been published in numerous monographs, such as, Deep South, Proud Flesh, What Remains and the aforementioned Immediate Family. She was named “America’s Best Photographer” by Time magazine in 2001, as well as receiving numerous other awards and grants over the last four decades.
So that would be my version of ‘Sally-lite’. Obviously this is not definitive by any means but it will hopefully help to give an overview of Mann’s background. As I explained in my opening paragraph, I do think that understanding these aspects of the photographer’s life may help to explore the meanings behind the images she produces. We can all look at the image Vinland (below) and appreciate it (or not, if we so choose) but it may take on different meanings for us when we consider that it is in fact an image of her young daughter, standing half naked in a pose for her mother’s camera. The landscape may take on different meanings when you consider that this is the place the photographer was born and still lives. Such is the subjective nature of photographic appreciation that perhaps none of these things matter to how you observe the images. That’s the beauty of artistic discourse folks. You can pretty much see things whatever way you want.
Guy Debord - The Society of the Spectacle
I spent Christmas in Cork and after a couple of days of festive gorging we felt the need to break out and head for the woods. Walking in the Ballincollig Regional Park we got a bit lost, found some old ruins and also these lovely reflections in the water. Camera phone pics, forgive the quality.
This is Dartmouth Square, a Georgian park in Ranelagh which had been up for sale as a ‘distressed property’ until last week. Conor Pope’s Irish Times article gives a good idea of the background involved. At one point it was going to be turned into a car park. Turns out the locals and Dublin City Council came together to purchase it so Dartmouth Square lives on to see another day…