Sally Mann: Object-oriented photographer


Part of the fuss around Sally Mann’s collection Immediate Family was that she had turned her children into objects. In the images of their childhood in rural Virginia, parts of their pre-pubescent bodies that should only have been visible (a matter of concern) to their parents had been objectified. The girl or boy, the ‘child’ maybe ‘childhood’ had become an object for Mann the artist. Further, Mann’s cumbersome view camera had become an object in their growing up, an interloper in the childhood where it had no right to be.

In her later work What Remains, Mann was again accused of objectification. As the omniscient artist-subject she had violated another taboo, turning decomposing corpses in an FBI scientific facility into ‘bodies’, objects of her art. Once again, she as subject turned her camera on objects.

But Mann is an object-oriented photographer in a real not a caricatured sense.

Her images are of objects connecting: the sacks next to Virginia in Virginia Asleep, 1988; The Yard Eggs, 1991; the adult earring and necklace around Jessie’s neck in Jessie at 5, 1987 – these are are as much the ‘child’ as the famous naked bodies. In Mann’s object-oriented photo-philosophy, they are players in the ‘childhood’ and the ‘family’ objects. Her’s is a democratic eye, but not an un-discerning one. Every object is carefully composed and connected.

But more than just a litany of objects on the groundglass, Mann is object-oriented in her sense of her own objectness. Her work with objects is not as a separate subject, standing outside the flux of material things in the world. Her’s is not a dispassionate eye secure in its subjecthood and correlationist relationship to ‘the world’, ‘the family’, ‘the South’. Sally Mann is an artist-object enfolded in the mesh of objects, connecting within the heart of new objects: “the Mann family”, “the Civil War”, “death”.

Mann’s object-oriented sensibility extends beyond her democratic eye. She is fully present in her images. Immediate Family is as much a picture of her as of her children. She is modelling just as they model. Her images of Civil War battlefields are less of landscapes out there, than of the interior landscape she argues Southerners carry with them. Mann knows that she is at the same ontological scale as her children, their childhood objects, her home and history.

Mann’s use of not just ancient cameras and lenses but also antique processes is also a part of her object-oriented sensibility. The glitches her technologies introduce, like the cliched inclusion of the photographer’s shadow, inscribed the technology-object across the image. The ‘failed’ coating of the wet collodion plate, the dust, the refracted light in the ancient lens, are themselves objects connecting with each other, with Mann, the thing being photographed, the gallery, the art market and… Mann is open to those objects. More, she embraces them and their connections.

Mann the photographer is co-present as an object in the mesh of her imaging in the shape of those glitches, faults, qualities. This is not some self-reflexive gambit simultaneously modernist in foregrounding the medium but also postmodern in playing with the death of the auteur-imager. Rather it is an object-oriented sensibility, a realisation and acknowledgement of the inevitability and power of object meshes within imaging.