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by Suzanne Révy
“Guess what? When it comes right down to it, wherever you go, there you are. Whatever you wind up doing, that’s what you’ve wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking right now, that’s what’s on your mind. Whatever has happened to you, it has already happened.
The important question is, how are you going to handle it?”
Two important masters in American photography answer “the important question, how are you going to handle it” in recently published tomes. Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is a catalog of the recently mounted Mann exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which is a profound exploration of her deep roots in the American South. Joel Meyerowitz’s peripatetic wanderings in Where I Find Myself reveal the restlessness of a traveler who responds to the rhythms and color of the places he explores. Although female and male, born rural and urban, both grew up in the same era in our nation and bring a mindful eye to their work, wherever they go, whether close to home or far afield.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings delves into a fifty year career of the artist presented largely chronologically by curators Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel with essays by Hilton Als, Malcolm Daniel and Drew Gilpin Faust. The book opens with an introduction by Greenough and Kennel which describes the myriad ideas about the American south that have informed Mann’s work from her earliest images of the human figure to her portraits of young girls and her family pictures, to her lush landscapes and finally to the legacy of slavery in her most recent portraits of African American men. We are treated to a selection of the family pictures, including several that were not in her famous book Immediate Family, including color images and a particularly poignant image of her son, Emmet Floating at Camp from 1991. It presents a figure that recalls a Pietá, and the sadness of Emmet’s death in 2016 at the age of 36 endows this image with an emotional charge. Death seems to permeate her pictures. In fact, an overriding sense of mortality seems to thread through all of Mann’s work.
Mann asks, “What does death do to the body? And what does death do to the earth?” To understand these questions, she began making landscapes in the lush valleys around her home in Lexington, Virginia, and eventually traveled deeper in the south to Georgia and Mississippi looking at Civil War battlefields and sites that were flash points in the struggle for civil rights. Employing a variety of techniques including solarization and the 19th century wet plate collodion process, she gives her images a layered sense that suggests the inherent contradictions in southern history, and how conflicts have shaped the land.
In a final group of images, Mann returns to the figure. She shares photographs of her husband’s aging body as it deteriorates from the effects of Muscular Dystrophy and there are a series of self-portraits that recall death masks. In her most recent work, she confronts the racism in the south and the legacy of slavery by making a series of portraits of African American men and images of southern black churches. She revisits the seminal relationship with her childhood nanny, Gee Gee, as she considers her privilege as a Caucasian woman that left her blind to the institutional racism facing African Americans. Several images of Gee Gee with her youngest daughter are included here, indicating how earlier work informed more recent picture making. It is interesting to note that this book does not include the images Mann made at a body farm of decaying corpses, but for this reader, they are not missed. Despite the shocking nature of the subject matter, they were not her strongest work. Aging and intimate connections to family, land, and culture infuses her work in subtle and metaphoric ways that is frankly lacking in the images of dead bodies. A Thousand Crossings takes the pulse of Mann’s life work and demonstrates her gift for finding and building connections between different projects, the mark of a brilliant and mindful artist.
At its core, the culture and theater of city streets outside the home informs the work of Joel Meyerowitz. He has also traveled the world making pictures of people and places in a variety of landscapes including the agrarian hills of Tuscany, the sandy light of Cape Cod and the grit of inner cities such as St. Louis. In the recently published opus Where I Find Myself, he uses the language of music to describe his photography. The street images made with a 35mm camera are jazz riffs, and the serenity of the longer view necessary for pictures made with a large format camera are meditative and classical.
The book is arranged in reverse chronological order beginning with a recent series of still life images made in his studio in Italy. He writes about these pictures, “I wanted to see if my life on the streets, with its years of observation of human passage – clusters and couples, the singles, the trios, the high, the low, the messengers and models, the massing and flowing, the inevitable relationships within the frame, which really had no connection, all of it seen as energy, revealing to me, at certain moments and in all its formlessness, the unexpected meaning – was a way into the making of still lifes, nature morte.”
The objects, from discarded tins and tools, rusted funnels, dried hay and a skull are rendered in soft muted colors that recall the palette of Cézanne and the paintings of Morandi. This exploration of objects as metaphor is strikingly different from all of his earlier work, yet it is easy to spot parallels, particularly in some of his urban views from St. Louis deeper in the book. In a chapter called Elemental, Meyerowitz sequences images from the clean-up of Ground Zero in New York City with Tuscan landscapes and horizonless images of water, fire, earth and wind to create a dazzling visual dance through tragedy and joy.
The book is peppered with many well known master works, but also includes a broad selection of earlier, lesser known work which reveals the arc of his creative life and a few misfires. In stark contrast to Sally Mann’s reverential portraits of her husband, a series of portraits of Meyerowitz’s second wife, Maggie, don’t reveal much about their relationship to each other or to the rest of his work, and the book would likely be stronger without their inclusion. A tighter edit through some of the later chapters might have made the book a more visually satisfying journey, though their inclusion allows for an autobiographical and encyclopedic understanding of this accomplished master. And like a symphonic work, the book concludes where it started – with a still life: The Nature of Time: First Still Life is an arrangement of objects signifying a personal journey. It anticipates the pictures made decades later and miles away. Meyerowitz writes, “What surprises me is how close they are to my impulses for arranging things now.” Or as Kabat- Zinn suggested, “wherever you go, there you are.”
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings
by Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel
with essays by Hilton Als, Malcolm Daniel and Drew Gilpin Faust
National Gallery of Art
Peabody Essex Museum
Published by Abrams Books, New York
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings will be on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA from June 30 to September 23, 2018.
Where I Find Myself: A Lifetime Retrospective
by Joel Meyerowitz
Published in collaboration with Elephant Magazine
Published by Laurence King Publishing, London