Sally Mann. Battlefields, Cold Harbor (Battle) [detail], 2003, gelatin silver print. Image: 99.1 x 124.5 cm (39 x 49 in.) Framed 103 x 128.6 cm (40 9/16 x 50 5/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee and The Sarah and William L Walton Fund. Image Ó Sally Mann
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 4 March – 28 May 2018.
“This is what people need to see. They need to see—the South is beautiful, when you look at these Magnolia trees—but they also bore strange fruit. I mean, that’s the reality that you can’t forget. You see the tragedy in the situation and you also see the beauty in the situation. And so, I think that is what she was trying to show.” These are the words of Janssen Evelyn, one of the models in American photographer Sally Mann’s photographic series, Men (2006-2015). In the series, Mann invited African American men to spend time with her, and to model for her, with the understanding that she would also take their photographs. As a white Southern girl, Mann was cared for by an African American woman, but black men, although visible, remained ultimately unseen in her life, as she describes in her 2015 memoir Hold Still. Evelyn, who was a law student at Washington and Lee at the time, speaks about how he understood Mann’s intent in a short interview installed at the end of the exhibition. I wanted to start with his words, because Sally Mann pervades throughout the show otherwise. Her hand, her eye, her words, and her presence are everywhere. Sally Mann—the artist, the Southerner, the seeker—is as inescapable as is the American South, the theme of the exhibition.
Not that she shouldn’t be. Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is, after all, the first major international exhibition of Mann’s work engaging with the South. Curated by Sarah Greenough, Senior Curator and Head of the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) and Sarah Kennel, The Byrne Family Curator of Photography at Peabody Essex Museum, it is currently on view at the NGA through 28 May and traveling on to a five-city tour. The exhibition is not framed as a retrospective (upon Mann’s request) but a collection of 109 photographs that explore her relationship with the South and its history of death, violence, and beauty. In her photographs, texts, and interviews, she frequently alludes to her Southern credentials: her birth in the former brick home of Stonewall Jackson,1 “her obsession with the land” and with “dosages of romance that would be fatal to most contemporary artists.”2 Mann has been forthright that these Southern projects are deeply personal quests, explorations of the South and its “death-haunted, paint-haunted, cruelty-haunted” landscapes, where she was “looking for images of the dead as they are revealed in the land and in its adamant, essential renewal.”3 Many of the projects represented in the exhibition are Mann’s attempts at visual reparations for the South’s violent history. What is striking about the images—of Civil War battlefields, of where Emmett Till’s brutalized body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River, of empty black churches—is their eerie beauty. Yet this leads one to ask: What does it mean for Mann to travel to places of historical, racial violence to take sumptuous, light-filled images, made and printed with nineteenth-century photographic processes? Part of the answer to this is an unresolved relationship between her love of the South and photography’s history of objectification.
The exhibition is organized into five thematic sections. Family opens the show and includes many recognizable images from Mann’s controversial and career-jolting series, Immediate Family (1985-1994). The photographs largely picture her young children playing around the Maury River by the family’s summer cabin in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, sometimes naked, most of the time highly posed, and always photographed with technical precision. When released in the 1990s, critics and politicians alike accused Mann of child pornography, being a bad mother, and exposing her children to pedophiliacs, the kind of highly gendered criticism that accompanied a frenzy of moral fear in relationship to photography in the early 1990s.4 Four color photographs from the series, not originally exhibited, will be new to viewers. Bean’s Bottom, for instance, a striking study of color, line, and texture, recalls other southern photographers who were similarly obsessed with the strange light, humid atmosphere, and colors of the South, William Eggleston and William Christenberry among them. Noticeably absent, however, are the most controversial photographs from Immediate Family. No Jessie smoking a candy cigarette, no nude Virginia standing tall and proud. Why omit these photographs, which, arguably, launched Mann’s career? Yes, the theme here is the land, and the photographs still ring true to a childhood lived rather than idealized, but this absence hangs heavy over the Family gallery which feels less urgent, or at least not controversial anymore, especially in light on the other work.
The next gallery, The Land, marks a distinct shift in the style and content of Mann’s photography following the controversies of Immediate Family. There is both a new subject, land, devoid of people and a new blurry, cloudy style, largely due to her switch to wet plate collodion. Invented in 1851, the wet plate collodion process involves coating a glass plate with a collodion solution, immersing the plate in a light-sensitizing solution, placing the plate into a holder, and then, still wet, exposing the plate in the camera. The glass plate must be immediately developed and fixed before it dries. The process forces the photographer to prepare the chemicals, take the photograph, and develop the negative all in one go.
Mann had modified her camera for wet plate collodion and outfitted her car as a dark room for her travels to the Deep South—Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. There is clearly a connection between the ruins she seems drawn to—ruined plantation homes, scarred trees, graves—and the mistake-prone method with which she photographs them. In Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie) for example, the place believed to be where the mutilated body of Emmett Till was thrown into the river by subsequently acquitted white supremacists, a drip on the glass negative results in what looks like a teardrop coming off of the arm of a branch, dripping down into the river itself, a chemical streak in the emulsion, as the gallery wall text notes. This photograph is flanked on either side by two other images of death: Deep South, Untitled (Concrete Grave) depicting a contemporary above-ground tomb and Deep South, Untitled (Emmett Till River Bank), picturing the scrubby, cracked riverbank where it is believed the murdered Till was found. These photographs, which take up an entire wall in the room, form a triptych emphasizing violent black death in the American South and seem devastatingly relevant today. Mann traveled a long way to take these three photographs, which, I would contend, are the pinnacle of her Deep South series, maybe even the entire exhibition which is really all about race. Unlike the recent controversy surrounding painter Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, an abstracted, thickly painted, close-up of Till’s face and body at his open-casket funeral exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennial,5 Mann, another white, female artist, has not received public pushback for this image. Perhaps this is because the body is not there. The land and the glass plate serve as stand-ins for the body, both cracked, marked, acted upon. Yet, this is conflating photographic processes with a real, mutilated body, a discussion of form and content that ignores traumatic fear and pain. Mann’s desire to find death in the land through her travels South is always from a position of power, behind the camera, that does not have to contend with ever-present threats of moving through spaces and situations still dangerous for many.
The next room, entitled, Last Measure, marks a return to Mann’s Virginia and its bloodiest Civil War battlefields, emphasized by the dramatic dried-blood red color of the walls and dim lighting. Still using the wet plate collodion method, the plates are full of the flaws Mann loves and are printed on sumptuous, gelatin silver prints. For example, in Battlefields, Cold Harbor (Battle), horizontal streaks move across the entire image of a forest of tall trees, evoking a never-ending stream of bullets zooming across the land. Notably, Mann takes her battlefield photographs in places generally unrecognizable to tourists. The photographs are clearly about place, but not marked as being of a particular place in any other way than their titling. Rather, they prompt an emotional reaction, meant to be triggered by a generalized subject matter of death, time, light and composition.
The fourth room, called Abide With Me, is the largest and most complex, breaking down the connection between the South and the land into a more complicated theme of the construction of Southernness, particularly, white Southernness. It is divided into three sub-themes: portraits of Virginia “Gee-Gee” Carter, who worked for Mann’s family for fifty years and the historical African American churches Mann associated with her; images of the Great Dismal Swamp, Blackwater, and Nottoway Rivers where many enslaved peoples escaped to and hid from danger despite the harsh and dangerous landscape; and Mann’s Men series, referred to in the introduction, with photographs of African American men’s faces and bodies, shot in her studio. The images represent a sincere and deeply personal exploration of Mann’s relationship with African American people, both individuals close to her and anonymous, contemporary and historical people she will never know, or know only through a photographic engagement. Still, these explorations and encounters are always on her terms.
Within the room, there are two, large, framed collages of personal family photographs of Gee-Gee. Portraits of her are interspersed with small, historical African American churches such as Oak Hill Baptist, bathed in light and abandoned or at least empty, places that Mann remembers going with Gee-Gee. However, the churches are also important sites of black sanctuary, from the white, Southern world Mann knows; tellingly, she only ever photographs the churches from the outside. The Men series, ambiguous, nude portraits of men, not of whole bodies but of specific body parts (chest, hands, heads) and sometimes looking dead, other times asleep, are unsettling. The men are cut off from time and place and are blurred, stilled, and unrecognizable. Even though the models were willing participants in this exercise, and paid by Mann, they remain silent and partial. Lastly, the swamp images, which are tintypes, many marked by an eerie blue caused by excessive collodion, are much stronger thematically and return to the theme of black sanctuary. Blackwater 25 is dark and dreary, dense and full of trees reflected in murky water, but it is also near the place where Nat Turner lived when he led an 1831 rebellion. The swamps look daunting and dangerous but recall a history of African American defiance in the wake of violent oppression that has continued since.
The fifth room, What Remains, returns to Mann’s family, where the exhibition began, including intimate photographs of her husband Larry, from the series Proud Flesh and titled with Greek, Biblical, and other literary sources, showing the high praise she has for her husband-as-model who suffers from late-onset muscular dystrophy. There are also three, large, close-up portraits of her then young-adult children, entitled Faces and photographed so close that their individuality seems to have melted into the negative. In both series, Mann used several minutes-long exposures, speaking to larger themes of photographic time and mortality. What remains is what we leave behind, in the form of children, stories, images—what we love.
The exhibition then shifts its tone with a short documentary film entitled Sally Mann: Collodion and the Angle of Uncertainty where Mann demonstrates the process of making a wet plate collodion negative in her studio, a fascinating procedure that she clearly loves. A final, seventh room, includes two more short interviews, one with Evelyn, and the other with choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones, including a performance he did on Mann’s land and photographs she took of him. The moving image and sound of other voices is an important inclusion that is worth the fifteen minutes it takes to view them. The films ultimately round out the show with other voices, other experiences, other stories of the South—stories that need to be heard and seen a thousand times over.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from 4 March – 28 May 2018 and then traveling to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (30 June – 23 September 2018), the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California (20 November 2018 – 10 February 2019), The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Texas (3 March – 27 May 2019) the Jeu de Paume, Paris (17 June – 22 September 2019) and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia (19 October – 2019 – 12 January 2020).
- Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 7.
- Sally Mann, Deep South (New York: Bulfinch Press, 2005), 53.
- Mann, Hold Still, 235.
- See Richard Woodward, “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann,” in The New York Times Magazine, 27 September 1992 and three subsequent weeks of enraged letters to the editor that followed. For a summary of responses to the series, see Janet Malcolm, “The Family of Mann,” in The New York Review of Books, 3 February 1994.
- See Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, “Dana Schutz’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Sparks Protest,” Art Net 21 March 2017. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/dana-schutz-painting-emmett-till-whitney-biennial-protest-897929 and Randy Kennedy, “White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests” 21 March 2017. The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/arts/design/painting-of-emmett-till-at-whitney-biennial-draws-protests.html