Luc Sante

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by Sarah Gree­nough and Sarah Ken­nel

Sally Mann: A Thou­sand Cross­ings an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Pe­abody Es­sex Mu­seum, Salem, Mas­sachusetts

Sally Mann: A Thou­sand Cross­ings an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Art, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., March 4–May 28, 2018; the Pe­abody Es­sex Mu­seum, Salem, Mas­sachusetts, June 30–Septem­ber 23, 2018; the J. Paul Getty Mu­seum, Los An­ge­les, No­vem­ber 16, 2018– Fe­bru­ary 10, 2019; the Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Hous­ton, March 3–May 27, 2019; the Ga­lerie Na­tionale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, June 17–Septem­ber 22, 2019; and the High Mu­seum of Art, At­lanta, Oc­to­ber 19, 2019–Jan­uary 12, 2020. Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by Sarah Gree­nough and Sarah Ken­nel. Na­tional Gallery of Art/ Pe­abody Es­sex Mu­seum/

Abrams, 331 pp., $55.00

The work of a pho­tog­ra­pher can­not help but be au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Ev­ery im­age pro­duced has been seen by the pho­tog­ra­pher’s eye and trans­mit­ted, by way of the pho­tog­ra­pher’s hand, to the film, plate, or dig­i­tal ap­pa­ra­tus that is the pros­the­sis of mem­ory. But some work is more per­sonal than other work. The act of wit­ness per­formed by a pho­to­jour­nal­ist, who aims for clar­ity and com­pres­sion, is dif­fer­ent from that of the street pho­tog­ra­pher, who en­gages in a more sub­jec­tive way of see­ing. And both of those dif­fer con­sid­er­ably from the task of pho­tog­ra­phers who are out to record the cir­cum­stances of their own in­ti­mate lives. The his­tory of the medium is sparsely dot­ted with these: pho­tog­ra­phers who doc­u­mented their child­hood (Jac­quesHenri Lar­tigue), youth (Nan Goldin, Larry Clark), par­ent­hood (Ni­cholas Nixon), mid­dle age with ag­ing par­ents (Mitch Ep­stein, Larry Sul­tan), and even their own phys­i­cal de­cline (Han­nah Wilke, John Co­plans). Gen­er­ally, the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal im­pulse is con­fined to an episode in a ca­reer oth­er­wise de­voted to other mat­ters. There are not many pho­tog­ra­phers who, like Sally Mann, have made their life and the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing it the cen­tral fo­cus of their work.

But that is not to say that Mann’s work is a di­ary or a chronicle or a suc­ces­sion of mir­rors. Her scope is con­cen­tric, in widen­ing rings, be­gin­ning with her nu­clear fam­ily and ex­tend­ing out­ward to the land they in­habit, the re­gion sur­round­ing it, the larger ter­ri­tory sur­round­ing that, and the long, tan­gled, bit­ter, com­pli­cated his­tory that un­der­lies all of it. Those el­e­ments are not dis­tinct from one an­other, but in­ter­min­gled: the small-scale with the large, the ac­tual with the for­got­ten, the in­ti­mate with the geopo­lit­i­cal, the twenty-first cen­tury with the nine­teenth, the liv­ing with the dead, por­traits with land­scapes. Her ear­lier books and shows gen­er­ally fo­cused on one or two of these, but the con­nec­tions have be­come more vis­i­ble with ev­ery suc­ceed­ing project, in par­tic­u­lar her mem­oir, Hold Still (2015). The cur­rent sur­vey ex­hi­bi­tion of her work, “Sally Mann: A Thou­sand Cross­ings,” or­ga­nized by the Na­tional Gallery of Art and the Pe­abody Es­sex Mu­seum, makes their con­ti­nu­ity in­escapable, blend­ing them to­gether in streams run­ning from room to room and chap­ter to chap­ter to form a river.

That metaphor is not idly cho­sen. As the ti­tle sug­gests, many rivers fig­ure in her pho­to­graphs, above all the Maury, which runs by her fam­ily’s farm

in Lex­ing­ton, Vir­ginia, and be­comes al­most a char­ac­ter in the pic­tures she took of her chil­dren grow­ing up. Those pic­tures, col­lected in Im­me­di­ate Fam­ily (1992), were what brought her work to the at­ten­tion of the wider world. Mann pho­tographed her chil­dren, Em­mett, Jessie, and Vir­ginia, when their ages were in the sin­gle dig­its, in an end­less sum­mer idyll in the pri­vacy of the pro­tec­tive curv­ing banks of the Maury, wear­ing few or no clothes and fre­quently smeared with mud or berry juice.

The pic­tures are a prelap­sar­ian dream of in­no­cence, but she had the bad luck to pub­lish the book just as the na­tion was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a moral panic con­cern­ing child pornog­ra­phy, com­ing on the heels of the re­pressed-mem­ory craze. Sud­denly the de­pic­tion of naked chil­dren, a sta­ple of sen­ti­men­tal im­agery since the Vic­to­rian era, was viewed by many with alarm. Fur­ther­more, Mann had not made her pic­tures suf­fi­ciently sen­ti­men­tal. There are cuts and bruises, a dirty sheet, a candy cig­a­rette, a dead deer, skinned squir­rels, sundry other in­ti­ma­tions of mor­tal­ity, and fre­quent sly jokes, such as the in­flat­able toy al­li­ga­tor that seems to be creep­ing up on a sleep­ing Vir­ginia, age three. Her pho­to­graphs were deemed “dis­turb­ing” on the cover of The New York Times Mag­a­zine; a writer for The Wall Street Jour­nal used a pho­to­graph from the series, which had re­ceived no govern­ment fund­ing, as Ex­hibit A in a screed against govern­ment fund­ing for the arts (and the piece was il­lus­trated with that pho­to­graph of a nude Vir­ginia, there dis­fig­ured with black bars across her eyes, chest, and groin); and Mann re­ceived piles of mail, some sup­port­ive, some vi­tu­per­a­tive, and some psy­chotic. The con­tro­versy un­ques­tion­ably

es­tab­lished Mann’s name, but at a steep emo­tional cost. By the time it erupted, how­ever, the chil­dren were al­ready be­com­ing too grown for in­no­cent play­act­ing in front of the lens, and Mann had gone lit­er­ally to ground. As she wrote to a friend in 1994, “there’s some­thing strange hap­pen­ing in the fam­ily pic­tures. The kids seem to be dis­ap­pear­ing from the im­age, re­ced­ing into the land­scape.” She was be­gin­ning to pho­to­graph the land­scapes in Vir­ginia and later Ge­or­gia that were to com­prise the series that, when it was com­pleted in 1996, was called “Mother Land.”

The pic­tures are over­pow­er­ingly lush and fe­cund, vis­i­bly hu­mid, var­i­ously scarred by mois­ture and dam­aged lenses, the con­trasts some­times ex­treme, the sun burn­ing through and seem­ing to con­sume the leaves on the trees or eat away at the pre­pos­ter­ous ru­ined colon­nade of what was once an an­te­bel­lum man­sion. It’s no won­der that Hil­ton Als thought that she was “too ob­sessed with the South’s pic­ture­post­card ‘ter­ri­ble beauty’” and that she wanted to be “a mythol­o­gizer, a Faulkner of the lens,” but on the other hand the pic­tures are au­then­ti­cally out of time, ex­ist­ing some­where be­tween the nine­teenth cen­tury and the eve of the twenty-first in a loop of cre­ation and de­struc­tion. And for all that Mann is in some ways a very lit­er­ary pho­tog­ra­pher (and an ex­cel­lent writer her­self), her im­me­di­ate inspiration was not Faulkner but the nine­teen­th­cen­tury pho­tog­ra­pher Michael Mi­ley, whose 7,500 glass-plate neg­a­tives she found in an at­tic at Wash­ing­ton and Lee Uni­ver­sity in 1973.

She spent more than two years clean­ing the plates, then printed over a thou­sand of them. Mi­ley was a hard-work­ing all-around pho­tog­ra­pher in the mold of his time who be­gan tak­ing pic­tures dur­ing the Civil War, made a liv­ing as a por­traitist and a doc­u­men­tar­ian for ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions, and ex­per­i­mented on his own. Among the lo­cal sights he had pho­tographed was the very bend on the Maury that Mann was to ex­ten­sively shoot more than a cen­tury later in Im­me­di­ate Fam­ily. His work was a panoply of rev­e­la­tions, ex­hibit­ing a lyri­cal plain­spo­ken­ness, in­tro­duc­ing her to the beauty of the col­lo­dion process, em­body­ing the pas­sage of time, and estab­lish­ing artis­tic roots for her right in the place where she had lived nearly all her life. Mann felt a deep con­nec­tion to the to­pog­ra­phy of cen­tral Vir­ginia, but her par­ents had come from Texas and Bos­ton and were lib­eral in­tel­lec­tu­als in­clined to­ward ec­cen­tric­ity. Hav­ing Mi­ley as her elec­tive an­ces­tor helped guide her into the folk­ways and in­ner life of the place.

Her next project, with seem­ing in­evitabil­ity, con­cerned Civil War bat­tle­fields, sites of some of the most bru­tal clashes: An­ti­etam, Manassas, Fred­er­icks­burg, Cold Har­bor, the Wilder­ness. She was be­gin­ning to learn the ex­act­ing wet-plate col­lo­dion process and to use an­tique cam­eras and weath­ered lenses. That might, on the face of it, sound a bit like her ver­sion of Civil War reen­act­ment, although the dark, brood­ing pho­to­graphs she pro­duced look lit­tle like the pic­tures of Alexan­der Gard­ner or Tim­o­thy O’Sul­li­van. Some of them barely look like pho­to­graphs at all. Her Bat­tle­fields, An­ti­etam (Black Sun) (2001) shows one nar­row band of iden­ti­fi­able land­scape—a zigzag­ging split-rail fence—while the ground lead­ing up to it is murk and the smeared sky might ap­pear to con­tain two or even three orbs. The tit­u­lar one, risen half­way up from the hori­zon, is very nearly the dark­est thing in the pic­ture. The whole thing sug­gests a dry­point etch­ing by Odilon Re­don or a spit-and-soot com­po­si­tion by Vic­tor Hugo. The pic-

tures flaunt their os­ten­si­ble im­per­fec­tions: pocked and scratched sur­faces, waves and bil­lows of fluid, peel­ing emul­sion, large ar­eas of im­pen­e­tra­ble dark­ness. They con­vey ac­crued time and the over­whelm­ing pres­ence of death, force­fully declar­ing that noth­ing has been laid to rest.

Of course, com­ing to terms with the South meant that Mann had to con­front the sub­ject of race. In the flow of the gal­leries of “A Thou­sand Cross­ings,” what suc­ceeds the Civil War pic­tures are two large frames con­tain­ing as­sem­blages of snap­shots and other doc­u­ments con­cern­ing Vir­ginia “Gee-Gee” Carter, who raised Mann. As Mann writes:

Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat with­out hit­ting an older, well-off white per­son raised by a black woman, and ev­ery damn one of them will earnestly in­sist that a re­cip­ro­cal and equal form of love was ex­changed be­tween them .... Could the feel­ings ex­changed be­tween two in­di­vid­u­als so hyp­o­crit­i­cally di­vided ever have been hon­est, un­tainted by guilt or re­sent­ment?

Gee-Gee had six chil­dren, was wid­owed young, put all her chil­dren through col­lege, and worked for Mann’s fam­ily six days a week for nearly fifty years, rais­ing not only Mann and her broth­ers but also Mann’s own chil­dren, the youngest of whom was named af­ter her. She ap­pears, full-face and smil­ing, in the early pages of Im­me­di­ate Fam­ily, and af­ter­ward as a gnarled guid­ing hand, a benev­o­lent sil­hou­ette, a head of fine white hair watch­ing over a sleep­ing child. In other pic­tures by Mann she is de­fined by her feet, large and rooted. She was un­ques­tion­ably Mann’s deep­est con­nec­tion to the land.

Pur­su­ing this idea, the pho­tos Mann took of Gee-Gee are mixed with the series called “Abide With Me” (2008–2016), de­voted to African-Amer­i­can churches in the Vir­ginia coun­try­side, while “Black­wa­ter” (2008–2012), a study of Vir­ginia’s Great Dis­mal Swamp in large-for­mat tin­types, is blended with “Men” (2006– 2015), a suc­ces­sion of posed por­traits of young AfricanAmer­i­can males. Some of the churches are ac­tive and some long aban­doned; they are uni­formly low, peakroofed, white clap­board. Un­like Walker Evans’s churches they are not pre­sented headon like so many mugshots, but dis­creetly, at an an­gle or from the side, most of them wrapped in trees or vines. Aside from the aban­doned ones they are well tended and im­pos­si­ble to date. They might have been built last year or a cen­tury ago. They

all ap­pear peace­ful, home-like refuges for their con­gre­ga­tions.

The swamp views are ghostly. At least one (Black­wa­ter 18) hints at Ed­ward Ste­ichen’s epochal The Pond—Moonrise (1904) (a Pic­to­ri­al­ist in­flu­ence has al­ways been ev­i­dent in Mann’s work), but many of the oth­ers, so dark that the ar­eas of light can look like ef­fects of so­lar­iza­tion, sug­gest some­thing even more sin­is­ter than her Civil War pic­tures, if only by virtue of be­ing con­cealed. (In view of the dif­fi­cul­ties of trans­port­ing and de­ploy­ing a gi­ant pe­riod cam­era in the swamp, the pic­tures were taken dig­i­tally, printed, and then repho­tographed as tin­types.) Views of wa­ter and veg­e­ta­tion lack­ing any ev­i­dent hu­man trace, they carry on from some of the pic­tures she took in the late 1990s for Deep South (2005), a con­tin­u­a­tion of the “Mother Land” series into Mis­sis­sippi, in par­tic­u­lar

the one that shows the muddy, fea­ture­less site on the Tal­la­hatchie River where Em­mett Till’s body, at­tached to a fan blade by barbed wire, was sunk by his mur­der­ers in 1955.

The con­nec­tion is un­der­scored by the pic­tures’ al­ter­na­tion with those of “Men.” The men, paid mod­els, are shown in poses and at­ti­tudes—ly­ing on a bare bench; in­ter­laced fin­gers against a bare chest; out­lined in stark pro­file— that in­escapably sug­gest im­ages of slav­ery, a no­tion en­hanced by the ag­ing and dis­tanc­ing ef­fects of the col­lo­dion process. Over the past twenty years Mann has often seemed to use her cam­era as a means for reach­ing back into the past; here it is as if she is search­ing hope­lessly for a way to set things right in ret­ro­spect.

The “Men” pic­tures have an­other point, how­ever, which is pur­suant to her ca­reer-long in­ter­est in the elo­quence of the hu­man body, a mat­ter first ex­plored at length in her book At Twelve: Por­traits of Young Women (1988). There the sub­jects, all of them twelve years old, are each por­trayed in a dif­fer­ent way, with props and set­tings spe­cific to them, and they each as­sume poses that pro­pose them­selves as sig­na­tures. She went on to study her chil­dren’s bod­ies, her fa­ther’s body near and af­ter death— there do not seem to be any pho­tos of her mother—and Gee-Gee’s body, but black men’s bod­ies had been lack­ing, a gap in her un­der­stand­ing. She briefly re­turned to pho­tograph­ing her chil­dren in a 2003 series, “What Re­mains,” which con­cen­trates the cen­ter of each of their faces on a plate, each printed very large: about 48 1/2” x 38 3/4”—a series that has gained ad­di­tional poignancy since the un­timely death of Em­mett in 2016. The ti­tle and fram­ing sug­gest, even more than her other pic­tures of them, an at­tempt to fix them for­ever in mem­ory.

Her hus­band, Larry, ap­pears dis­creetly on the edges of the fam­ily pic­tures, but gen­er­ally is more often evoked, thanked, paid homage to than seen. There is one grand pic­ture of him, The Turn (2005), show­ing him turn­ing his body a quar­ter to the left as he walks through a vast ex­panse of mist-cov­ered meadow—but he is seen from the back. A few years ear­lier, how­ever, he had been af­flicted by late-on­set mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy, and in 2003 she be­gan record­ing its ef­fects in an on­go­ing series called “Proud Flesh.” There the dis­tanc­ing ef­fect of the col­lo­dion process al­lows a sub­ject of nearly un­bear­able in­ti­macy and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, one that could make the viewer feel like an in­truder or worse, to be lyri­cally al­luded to with­out the sort of bru­tal con­fronta­tion that pho­tog­ra­phy might oth­er­wise in­volve. “A Thou­sand Cross­ings” and its cat­a­log rep­re­sent a large por­tion of Mann’s mul­ti­fac­eted oeu­vre. It is by turns ten­der, light-hearted, sun-dap­pled, epic, al­lu­sive, bur­dened, scarred, mourn­ful, dark, mind­ful, ex­ploratory, ex­pi­a­tory, com­mem­o­ra­tive, in­tro­spec­tive, con­cil­ia­tory, and wise. The as­pect of her work they slight is death. This might seem an ab­surd claim in view of how largely death looms in the bat­tle­field series and “Black­wa­ter,” but those are al­lu­sions and not the thing it­self, which is the pri­mary sub­ject of her book What Re­mains (2003). That be­gins with the death of a beloved grey­hound, Eva, and Mann’s con­se­quent de­ci­sion to pre­serve her hide and her bones, which she pho­to­graphs as if they were ves­tiges of great an­tiq­uity. (It should be noted not only that Mann’s fa­ther pos­sessed a large col­lec­tion of death-re­lated ar­ti­facts from around the world, but also that un­til fairly re­cently the crudely taxi­der­mized re­mains of Robert E. Lee’s and Stonewall Jack­son’s horses were both on dis­play in Lex­ing­ton, at dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tions.) Fur­ther on in What Re­mains, which also in­cludes a se­lec­tion of Civil War bat­tle­fields in ad­di­tion to the large close-ups of her chil­dren’s faces, can be seen a series that be­gan as an as­sign­ment from The New York Times Mag­a­zine: to pho­to­graph the Uni­ver­sity of Ten­nessee’s Foren­sic An­thro­pol­ogy Cen­ter, oth­er­wise known as the Body Farm. There the ca­dav­ers of per­sons who have willed them to sci­ence are al­lowed to de­cay in the open, so that the process can be stud­ied by foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gists. Their con­di­tion ranges from nearly in­tact to mostly skele­tonized, but Mann’s process em­pha­sizes not their in­salu­bri­ous­ness but their re­turn to and one­ness with na­ture, as they ap­pear to dis­solve into the fallen leaves of the au­tum­nal land­scape. I am not fault­ing Mann or her col­lab­o­ra­tors for omit­ting these pic­tures in “A Thou­sand Cross­ings”; there are sev­eral un­der­stand­able rea­sons. But they are nev­er­the­less an ob­vi­ous miss­ing piece in this grand panorama of her art and her world­view.

Sally Mann: Larry Shav­ing, 1991

Sally Mann: Bat­tle­fields, An­ti­etam (Black Sun), 2001

Sally Mann: Vir­ginia #38, 2004; from What Re­mains

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