Women in Art: Sally Mann

Women in Art will be a series of features about women artists. Representation has always been an issue for women in the art world. Women were always the subjects, not the creators. Throughout the centuries, the work of many women artists has been under-appreciated and hidden in the back of museums, rarely making it to prestigious exhibitions. This series is just my small way of contributing to a change of seeing, both in art and in life.

For centuries painting, sculpture and music have been dominated by men. What baffles me most is that women, who are doomed as sentimental and much more “emotional” than men, don’t seem to have an equally rich presence in the art world to the one that men do. The oxymoron is that even though men tend to be more avoidant when it comes to feelings, art, which serves as a form of self-expression, is male-dominated. After spending quite some time in the world of photography, it was obvious that it was indeed a male dominated environment. I, then, took it as my mission to discover as many women artists as I can. I don’t think that women’s voices are heard enough both in art and in life. And even when they are, they are either whispers or end up being dismissed as part of another so called rant. Why is it that women don’t seem to enjoy the same praise and recognition when it comes to creation? Why is it that females weren’t being taken seriously for so long in the art world? Are there any women breaking through the barriers?

Thankfully there are many, if we’re just willing to look for them. For the first installment of the series, we will spend a bit of time thinking about the work of a very controversial and prolific photographer;Sally Mann, born and raised in the USA. Sally Mann’s Immediate Family was one of the most provoking books in photography. When Immediate Family was published in 1992, the critics were torn between praise and child abuse accusations, asMann’s work landed within the Mapplethorpe controversy[[1]]. Sally Mann was one of the first women photographers to do something that at the time seemed abusive and completely inconsiderate in regards to her children. However, it remained one of the most iconic books in photography.

Nudes in art portray women 85% of the time[2][2]. And given that only 5% of artists in contemporary art museums are women, it is obvious that those nudes are created in their majority by male artists. Photography is no exception to these depressing facts. This is why Sally Mann’s work was and still is radical. It’s not often that we see a woman taking pictures of another woman, let alone pictures of her nude children being in nature or adolescent girls (see below). What she did was art, but given that what we are used to seeing as art is only nudes coming from male artists, it seems strange and slightly alarming to want to make art with your children as your subject. But what would be more natural than a mother taking pictures of her newborn or two-year-old son?

 

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Let’s not forget that children are not entirely innocent. They are not devoid of sexual urges even at the first stages of their development. Sally Mann was well aware of this and did an amazing job at portraying the pre-adolescent dance between childish innocence and a desire to be a “grown-up”. In “Candy Cigarette” Sally Mann captures her daughter holding the infamous cigarette; don’t worry, it’s made from candy. The defiance in Jessie’s gaze in the picture is not what we are used to seeing in pictures taken by men. The girl, walking the bridge between childhood and adolescence, looks at the camera with an unexpected seriousness. Her sensuality is only implied; Sally Mann’s work is impressive because it succeeds in portraying the complexity and contradictions of the human psyche, that are ever-present and evident even at the tender age that she chooses to photograph her children.

What Mann does is not easy. It’s not only her subjects and their environment that amount to the impressive results of her work. It’s also the planning and execution of her ideas that sets her apart from her male counterparts. Using the large format camera that she started shooting landscapes with, she would set up scenes while her children were playing or running around. Her staged photos are a mix of fact and fiction, making it hard to tell which is which and interpret them as such. This ambiguity has served Mann well, resulting in countless articles on her work. She even published a memoir that shed light on her family history and personal difficulties.

One of the most valid pieces of criticism concerning Mann’s work was about her references on violence, examples of which we can see in “Damaged Child” and “Flour Paste”. The kids were not abused in the making of these pictures; but Sally Mann does not seem to comment on violence in any kind of way. Despite being open enough to produce and exhibit this kind of work, we can’t say that she is taking a clear position. It seems that she might have liked provoking controversy just as much as producing multifaceted portraits and commentaries on the juxtaposition between life and death. 

It would be unfair not to mention Mann’s other work. A Thousand Crossings, What Remains and At Twelve (in random order) show unique cohesion and progress. A Thousand Crossings[3]is almost a photographic study on the American South. Sally Mann’s past,beautifully narrated in her memoir[4] is the main inspiration of this book. Her relationship with Virginia Carter, the woman who raised her, her research on racial history and travels all around the American South along with her personal soul searching amounted to an abstract,less descriptive and dark moment in her work. Death and racial injustice were all around her mind while shooting these pictures; and anyone can tell that it shows. Her photos of the Great Dismal Swamp, where a lot of slaves escaped and many died, are haunting. The same goes for What Remains[5],which is a study on death. This is undoubtedly the most difficult book of the bunch, portraying decaying corpses and a series of photos of Mann’s dead dog,Eva. Mann does not tiptoe around the subject; death is not implied, it’s confronted head on.

 

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Last but not least, Mann has published a book on portraits of young girls entitled At Twelve[6]. At Twelve is a collection of beautiful portraits, some staged and some completely spontaneous. Published in 1988, this book did cause a mild controversy amongst critics, but not to the extent of her next book, Immediate Family.

 

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The introduction of the book written by Ann Beattie sums up the essence of what Mann wanted to say in both of her books, At Twelve and Immediate Family. “These girls still exist in an innocent world in which a pose is only a pose—what adults make of that pose maybe the issue.” Beattie couldn’t have explained better the controversy overMann’s work. A photo isn’t the truth; a photo is the truth of the spectator and the photographer. It can be a process of subtraction or addition. Taking a photo is more about the choice that leads to the content of the frame than the final result. And Mann’s choices are radical and captivating.  


[1]https://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/28/arts/photography-view-the-child-the-adult-within-and-the-blur-between.html

[2] Liz Wells (ed.), Photography: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, 2004

[3]https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/29/arts/design/sally-mann-a-thousand-crossings-review-national-gallery.html

[4]https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/books/review/hold-still-a-memoir-by-sally-mann.html

[5] http://entertainment.time.com/2007/01/26/the_naked_and_the_dead/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At_Twelve:_Portraits_of_Young_Women

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