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It’s neither pride, nor gravity but love
That pulls us back down to the world.
The soul makes a thousand crossings, the heart, just one.
– John Glenday, 2009
In all her photography, but especially in the 40-year arc traced in her solo exhibit A Thousand Crossings, Sally Mann uses light to suggest darkness and process to invoke metaphor. And inhabiting Mann’s stirring explorations of family, history, memory, and mortality are her indelible bonds to the American South. Through September 23rd, 2018, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA plays host to her wide-ranging, five-part exhibition that begins and ends with photographs of Mann’s family, a once tame subject that Mann represented so remarkably in her 1992 book Immediate Family, that it plunged her into controversy, bringing unexpected fame, admiration and loathing. Over the decades since, one of the most consistent things about Mann is the way she veers into controversial, burning questions like a moth to the flame, attracting and prodding viewers with her eloquent images and prose.
A Thousand Crossings opens with photographs that Mann made with her young children in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, a collaboration that necessitated many a re-enactment of fleeting situations to accommodate both Mann’s clunky 8”x10” view camera and her penchant for metaphor. Together, they created “half real, half fantasy” scenarios that nonetheless managed to shock and disturb many people.
In perhaps the first of her “thousand crossings”, Mann traversed that line from cherished saccharine fantasies of childhood into its conflicted reality, exposing the disquieting symbiosis of innocence and peril, independence and connection, love and loss. Capitalizing on her physical restrictions of caring for three young children, Mann photographed them at home in the sultry summer heat of their rural Virginia camp, absorbing the thick atmosphere as surely as their unhurried pastimes in its torpid, filtered light and dark, velvety waters.
The children appear at once guileless and sumptuous. It is Mann’s uncanny genius for visualizing this emotional ambivalence that elevates her intimate portraits into something universally recognizable as childhood. But her images do something much more, hitting a deep chord that resonates with our mortality. Mann’s dark edginess arises from her fascination with physical transience and it permeates all of her measures of our time here, from the moment we are delivered onto the earth to what remains after our passing.
As her children grew up and away from her camera’s lens, Mann implored the Southern landscape to divulge the historic traumas buried in its resplendent beauty, using archival processes as metaphor. These works are presented in “The Land” and “Last Measure” sections of the exhibit. She probes the tacit racism with which she was raised in “Abide With Me” and looks again to her family, decades after her photographic beginnings, in “What Remains.” Through it all, Mann’s ardent, hands-on experimentation imbues her imagery with a physicality that insinuates the hidden tales of our human connections.
In “The Land”, Mann coaxes meaning from her home soil in the series Virginia and Deep South with large, tea-stained photographs created with her 8”x10” camera, utilizing selective focus to both direct and disorient the viewer’s eye and special lenses to vignette the edges of the frame. By employing the wet-plate collodion method, she invites serendipitous artifacts to inhabit her scenes like ghostly presences. In “Last Measure” she pushes her technique further into the abstract realm, using contrasty “ortho” film and swirling, bubbly, wet-plate artifacts to call forth the concealed scars of Battlefields like Antietam. These impressions of complete devastation are haunting, unsettling. Immersively large, unglazed photographs imagine a ravaged land, from the bullet-riddled forest at Cold Harbor to the many inky battlefields that look like they were photographed at night or even on another planet.
“Abide With Me” is Mann’s most ambitious attempt to achieve symbolic meaning through her choices in photographic technique – and also in her variety of subject matter. She continues to draw analogies from Southern landscapes, but also exploits her own considerable Southern guilt about growing up in an overtly racist community and household, something she never questioned until she attended school in Vermont. In Blackwater, Mann combines wet-plate collodion capture with Tintype printing that gives a midnight blue-ish cast to her images of the Great Dismal Swamp, an area spanning coastal regions of Virginia and North Carolina crossed by fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad as they attempted to escape northward. Enigmatically suggestive of pending menace and furtive flight, I think these smaller prints are among the most elegant and evocative of Mann’s landscapes. By comparison, her photographs of abandoned Black churches printed on expired papers seem overrepresented and less effective.
In “Abide With Me”, Mann also returns to portraiture. Her series Men features obfuscated, unidentifiable hired Black models who are simultaneously beguiling and inscrutable. Perhaps these photographs reflect her own sense of uncertainty. By contrast, Mann’s distinct, insightful portraits of her childhood Black nanny Gee-Gee (short for Virginia), with Mann’s like-named youngest daughter in her series The Two Virginias are stunningly beautiful, recalling Mann’s greatest strengths as they address and transcend age and race.
In the final section of the exhibition, “What Remains”, Mann comes full circle in focusing again on her family, but in a completely different way. There are outsized, almost abstract close-ups of her three grown children, including a triptych that highlights their family resemblance and an Ambrotype matrix of nine searching self-portraits. In a display of enduring love, Mann exhibits almost a dozen portraits of her husband Larry Mann, his body quietly dignified even as it succumbs to the ravages of muscular dystrophy. In these, she joins her empathetic eye with an allusive literary title for each photograph in a profoundly moving tribute.
In “What Remains” Mann again addresses mortality in her methodology, with emulsion artifacts that infer individual character and memory in dreamy, selectively focused photographs. Some even recall the memento mori post-mortem photographs that gained popularity in Victorian times. In her maturity, Mann offers these material responses to the most fundamental, intangible and unanswerable questions. “The soul makes a thousand crossings, the heart, just one.” In her thousand crossings, Mann searches soul and soil for nothing less than the essence of life.
For more information about this exhibit, the accompanying planned programming and the handsome exhibition catalog co-authored by Sarah Kennel, PEM’s Byrne Family Curator of Photography, go to: https://www.pem.org/exhibitions/sally-mann-a-thousand-crossings
Stay tuned! Tomorrow, read our Curator’s Viewpoint interview with A Thousand Crossings exhibit co-curator Sarah Kennel, PEM’s Byrne Family Curator of Photography!
Feature Image (Detail) and Full Image, Below: Sally Mann (American, born 1951) Deep South, Untitled (Stick), 1998 gelatin silver print, printed 1999. New Orleans Museum of Art, Collection of H. Russell Albright, M.D.. Image © Sally Mann.