Ann Hamilton and Sally Mann: the Physicality and Transparency of Memory

(By Ann Batchelder)

Photographs and textiles provide clues to a personal as well as cultural presence. Both reference time and place; both also absorb light and memory and are subject to change in color and texture, form and meaning over time. It is the physicality and transparency of producing these two art forms — the evidence of the human hand and heart — that encourages connection at a time in history so dominated by technology.

Visual artist and maker Ann Hamilton and photographer Sally Mann both talk about the physicality and sensuality of their work, the time it takes to produce, the transparency of memory, and how making art, for them, is similar to weaving or knitting.

When asked her thoughts regarding the relationship between photography and craft, Ann Hamilton offered this reply:

what is the relationship between an image and a thing touched
between an image and its materiality —
made of silver and paper – light – and surface – cloth and ink
is the image ever separate from its materiality and scale?

my hand reaches toward a photograph – looking for the reciprocal assurance my fingers find in cloth
as if – the reach might bridge the time between the then of the shutter and the now of the blanket on my lap.
…. all we have – is the image and the words given to accounting for the felt impression of a moment

Known for her large-scale multi-media installations, as well as her work in video, sculpture, photography, textile art, and printmaking, Hamilton is particularly curious about various forms of sensory perception. At one point she created photographs by placing a tiny pinhole camera in her mouth, then shot photographs of people and places by opening and closing her mouth. “I started thinking about my mouth as a room. And, I became interested in thinking about what happens when one sense is displaced to another part of the body. So, if the sense of sight is joined to the place of voice, what results from that?”

Hamilton began as a weaver before exploring other art mediums, and still considers textiles to be her “firsthand.” In an interview with Krista Tippett (NPR’s On Being), Hamilton discussed her large-scale installations.

“I know when you look at the projects when they’re finished, or from afar, you know, they look sometimes enormous, and they are in enormous spaces or they happened over a long period of time. But it’s really one tiny little step after another. And it’s an associational process. And pretty soon, you know, they arrive like a sweater being knitted into this larger thing.

…you can take a sweater, or a sock, and you can see each loop up and around and slip through, and up and around and over. And, so, in that whole that has become, it never loses all the parts that constitute it. And so I think that that’s also been…a part of structuring the work in some way, where every act of it is in some way transparently present in the material. And you can see that.”

For Sally Mann, the experience of producing her photographs is also informed through the senses and intrinsically linked to the transparency of process and memory.


In her recent memoir Hold Still, Sally Mann describes the difficulty of capturing the light in Southern landscapes. “Making a photograph in these conditions is a challenge, even for modern film, and the resulting image often appears to have been breathed onto the negative….” Mann also writes about her attempts to capture something of the elusive, contradictory and painful history of the South. “The pictures I wanted to take were about the rivers of blood, of tears, and of sweat that Africans poured into the dark soil of their thankless new home.” In order to create the sense of atmosphere and history she desired, she used a 100-year old bellows camera and 19th century “wet plate” process, or collodion, that purposefully caused imperfections.

After hours driving through back roads in Alabama or Mississippi, Mann would come upon a moment in time and space, a scene to photograph:

“…all I remember is the rare, heart-pounding, brake-squealing lurch to the verge after glimpsing a potential image. My memories are of those euphoric moments of visual revelation, still fluorescing for me like threads in a tapestry in which most other colors have faded, leaving a few brightly, and sometimes wrongly, predominant. Tightly woven in the tapestry are the images I made, themselves informed by the inextricable past and its companions: loss, time and love. In these pictures, and in the writing of them, the dropped stitch between the sentimental Welshman and his descendent is repurled. And the story depicted in the irregular weave is of a place extravagant in its beauty, reckless in its fecundity, terrible in its indifference, and dark with memories.”

It is the craft of making art in mediums tied to everyday life–both past and present–that conjures a common sensuality and memory of experience. It is a way of making that happens, as Ann Hamilton puts it, “at the pace of the body;” or a story, says Sally Mann, “depicted in the irregular weave of a place.”



Sally Mann is featured in the film “From Darkroom to Daylight” by Harvey Wang, which will be screened at the photo+craft festival in Asheville on Saturday, April 2, 2016.

Ann Hamilton is in the process of collecting texts about cloth for her project at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. To participate, go to

Photographs (from top to bottom):
1. Ann Hamilton, face to face, 2001. Pigment print in wood frame. Courtesy Ann Hamilton Studio.

2. From Anne Hamilton’s installation “the event of a thread,” at Park Avenue Armory, NYC; December 5, 2012 – January 6, 2013

3. Sally Mann, Untitled [Deep South], 1998; Gelatin silver enlargement print, toned with tea (2/10) Printed by the photographer.

4. Sally Mann, Untitled [Deep South], 1998; Gelatin silver enlargement print, toned with tea (4/10) Printed by the photographer.

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