Tuesday, 25 September 2007



(First published 28th August 2007)

A post on photographer Sally Mann occurs here strictly for balance or variety. No current shows could be found to link, but there are many examples of her work on-line and her approach offers interesting contrast with other photographers so far included.

Mann’s work emerged in the mid 80s and is noted for portraiture of children and striking tonal and print qualities, often derived from antique or irregular camera and printing techniques. While Mann is hardly typical of the 80s, there are key aspects to her approach that connect with general trends for the time. Her photography shares in the move away from social reportage to more symbolic and abstract realms, as well as to resources beyond the studio-based tableau and standard formats there.

Photography has always experimented with its processes and equipment of course, from lenses and filters, to apertures and chambers, film stocks, printing projections, chemicals and surfaces. On a radical scale these result in full abstractions, but with photographers such as Mann, their use is returned to more concrete subjects. Her interest is not with a strict formalism (as arises in the work of Wolfgang Tillmans, for example) but turns to 19th century methods such as aristotypes (gelatino or collodio chloride prints) in order to render images from her surroundings in ways unavailable to standard means.

The prints have a fine grain, extended tonality; that is often manipulated to heighten the focus on a figure, to isolate features in ways that usually need studio staging. The work also acquires a certain distance or reserve. It looks like an antique, even pastiche, and Mann’s work is sometimes compared with the Victorian pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron. This revival of historical means has much in common with 80’s concerns with publication formats for photography, with so-called appropriation and originality (see also Posts 12 and 29).

But Mann’s work does more than revisit Victorian attitudes toward childhood and innocence. Her work subtly registers contemporary differences, in details to interiors, children’s clothing and hairstyles. Even the native and innocent five-year old is never quite the same as her 19th century counterpart. Naked, outdoors and alone, her pose nonetheless acquires a knowing, late 20th century poise. One concludes there is no pose to be discovered ‘unposed’, nothing natural that does not then reflect the givens to picture and taker. In this, Mann’s work uses children as a symbol for a more complex reflection on photography, history and nature.

Mann’s models are mostly her own children and throughout the late 80s and early 90s she steadily documents their growth, self-consciousness and independence. The theme is not necessarily a mother’s concerns, but rather the child as vulnerable, initial explorer, ourselves in tenderest extension. An early work such as Untitled – Seith (1984) demonstrates Mann’s initial more conventional approach to the portrayal of youth, but a slightly later work, Damaged Child (1984) properly signals her signature. The work is usually accompanied by an explanation of the accidental cause but again the child is not quite ageless in matters of fashion, if photography. More importantly, the focus is upon the severity of the injury to the very young, the impact, literal and metaphorical, the world makes upon their identity.

Indeed works such as Jessie Bites (1985) and Fallen Child (1989) similarly stress the bodily engagement with circumstances, a sensual abandon to play or harm; that acquires a distinctly sexual undertone, as Jessie, a key model, grows older. At a certain point it is not quite a child’s body against the rural outdoors, but rather positioned against an inquisitive photographer. The series draws to an end with this distance, and the gentle acknowledgement of a privacy the children have earned.

Mann subsequently turns to landscapes and here the emphasis upon primitive, less reliable methods results in more abstract, ghostly places. Significantly, Mann chooses sites of Civil War battles, again setting an historical parallel between site and means. But now the difference is not between the careful documents by Matthew B. Brady and associates, with placid, all but unrecognisable contemporary locations, but a more insidious sense of history; that lingers on, concealed in benign neglect, either to photography or landscape. Taken in combination with her works of children, nature takes on a sad, brooding history and whether background to innocent frolics or the overgrown and waywardly developed images of forests, the menace lies not in the unknown to the new comer, but more profoundly, in the remembered for the returning. Mann takes photography back to its childhood, gives it new maturity for the experience.

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