UPDATE: The High Museum of Art’s “Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings” closed December 16 — six weeks early — because of ongoing issues with a leaky ceiling. “Sally Mann: Remembered Light & Landscapes,” a concurrent exhibition, continues through December 21 at Jackson Fine Art.
The highly anticipated exhibit Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings has finally arrived at the High Museum of Art, aptly concurring with the recent appointment of Sarah Kennel as lead curator of the High’s photography department. Kennel co-curated the exhibit with Sarah Greenough, a senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
This is the final stop for the traveling show that had an international leg this summer at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris after being shown in Washington, D.C.; Salem, Massachusetts; Los Angeles; and Houston. It’s on view in Atlanta through February 2.
Although a deeply celebrated artist, Sally Mann, now 68, has never had a major survey of her work. A Thousand Crossings fills that gap, offering for the first time an in-depth presentation of work that spans four decades, with more than 100 photographs, many never exhibited or published before.
The exhibit is organized into five sections that follow Mann’s artistic evolution, with overarching themes of family, memory, desire and death. But the common thread that unites the work is the American South. Mann — a native of Lexington, Virginia — is deeply rooted in the South. She has repetitively asserted her Southern heritage, defining her work as Southern by her “obsession with place, the past, family, death and dosages of romance that would be fatal to most contemporary artists.” As a young artist, she questioned the need to move to New York to find gallery representation, later realizing that fulfillment would come from exploring her homeland.
The exhibit opens with Immediate Family, an enigmatic and complex series that made Mann controversially famous. Distancing herself from depicting the sentimental innocence associated with childhood, she shows her three children — Emmett, Jessie and Virginia — often unclothed and engaged in games that reveal cruelty and sometimes latent sexuality. “I find the very nature of motherhood fraught with conflicts and fears, as well as with humor and tenderness,” she once wrote. Some critics expressed concerns that she was exploiting her children and alluded to child pornography.
She took most of the family pictures using a large-format 8 x 10 view camera on a tripod, often staging her children in poses she would have previously observed — and sometimes rehearsed with their collaboration — intentionally blurring the lines between fact and fiction but nevertheless recording acts that are mostly “ordinary things every mother has seen.”
They capture a sense of spontaneity and elicit allegories of growing up, elevating the moment to a deeper universal meaning while still playing with ambiguity and unsettling feelings.
Mann is known for her luminous black-and-white photographs and her masterful handling of the gelatin silver print process. Nevertheless, the color series that follows Immediate Family testifies to an equal sensibility in exploring the power of color photography, even if momentarily. She produced this lesser-known series with a small, handheld medium-format camera. Bloody Nose (1991), a red-infused image of her son’s upper body heavily covered with blood, is particularly striking and proves Mann’s ability to use color expressively.
The following years saw a radical shift in her work. Her children became teenagers and less eager to pose for her camera. “Something strange is happening with the family pictures. The kids seem to be . . . receding into the landscape,” she wrote in a 1994 letter to a friend. Emblematic in this new direction is a lesser-known photograph titled On the Maury (1992), presented in a small 8 x 10 format, which would go mostly unnoticed had it not been excessively enlarged for the exhibit’s outside banner. It shows her family canoeing down the river near their home in Lexington, apparently drifting into the imposing landscape.
In the same way that she photographed her close family, Mann started photographing her immediate surroundings, the woodlands and rolling hills near her serene Shenandoah Valley. “This gradual move from the family pictures to the landscapes was a shift from what I thought of as our private, individual memories to the more public, emotional memories, those that the past discloses through traces inscribed on our surroundings,” she wrote in her acclaimed 2015 memoir, Hold Still.
In 1996, Mann was the first photographer commissioned by the High to produce work for Picturing the South, an ongoing project meant to build the museum’s contemporary collection. It helped fortify her desire to pursue landscape work and explore new terrains, first in Georgia and then in the neighboring states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
It also came at a time when she needed to reckon with her past and “to reconcile [her] love for the place with its brutal history.” Her landscape series reflects a desire to exalt something beautiful while pointing to the tragic. In her terms, the Southern landscape, “terrible in its beauty, in its indifference,” becomes the repository of human history and a place for questioning.
She started taking “awestruck, heartbreaking trips down South,” with the desire to reveal the fraught heritage that she has personally experienced — living in a white family seemingly oblivious to the condition of African Americans — as well as the dark legacy of the South. She photographed swamplands, fields and ruined estates, immersing herself in the intricacies of the land while seeking the “radical light of the American South.”
Significantly poignant is her image of the Tallahatchie Bridge, Deep South, Untitled (1998), for which she revisited the place where the young Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955, a death that “had haunted me since childhood,” she wrote. The river is a light gray mass, flanked by indiscernible banks on each side. The scene is tainted with an uncanny quality, indecipherable until you read the photograph’s caption.
Her new projects required a different technical vocabulary, and she decided to use alternative processes and old lenses that create light flare and vignetting. She first experimented with high-contrast ortho film and “decidedly welcomed the careless aesthetic of shooting with [it].” Then she delved into the wet-plate collodion technique used by Civil War-era photographers 150 years earlier, a cumbersome process prone to defects, scratches and peeling emulsion. She retrofitted the back of her Suburban to set up a darkroom filled with “a collection of esoteric and explosive chemicals.”
Mann readily embraced the imperfections of the antiquated process, qualifying them as “happy accidents” and reaffirming a desire to experiment freely. She used tea or dirt to tint her prints and have more “fun” at the same time. She welcomed the “mysterious incursion of ghostly radiance creeping in all around.” What she qualified as “almost a religious experience” resulted in prints that embody a sense of time and evoke the marks of history and loss.
In her series Last Measure (2000–03), Mann turned her camera on Civil War battlefields, producing almost abstract and unsettling renderings of the landscape in an attempt to answer the question: “Does the earth remember?” Far from being a mere documentation, these pictures are of nothing yet allude to what we cannot see, compelling us to confront the qualities of what is both absent and present in a single frame.
The following series, Abide With Me (2008–16) explores the entwined histories of segregation and slavery through an exploration of rivers and ghostly swamps where enslaved people once searched for escape routes. It includes, as well, expressive and sometimes overexposed renditions of white clapboard churches anchored by trees.
Abide With Me also features a study of African American male bodies — paid models — rendered in large prints. Mann is utterly sensitive to the issue of legitimacy of a white woman taking pictures of black men without being “exploitative, reductive and fraught,” as she wrote in Hold Still. “But at a higher level, the results can be transformative expressions of love, affirmation and hope.” For the most part, these portraits transcend the discourse.
The series includes poignant portraits of Virginia “Gee-Gee” Carter, a widow and granddaughter of a former slave, who was Mann’s caregiver and a defining presence in her life. These touching portraits evoke the tender 50-year relationship between the Mann family and their helper and bring a moment of light relief in view of the tense atmosphere of the harrowing landscape series in the previous room.
The exhibit comes almost full circle with Mann’s latest series, What Remains, in which she returned to family portraits, this time with an obsessive desire to visually instigate mortality and the decaying of flesh. The series includes haunting close-up studies of her children’s faces as young adults, as well as portraits of her husband, Larry, his body diminished with late-onset muscular dystrophy, and even a series of dark ambrotype self-portraits, taken when Mann came close to dying after a riding accident.
It’s difficult to leave A Thousand Crossings lighthearted after seeing so much darkness, but it’s equally difficult not to be awed by Mann’s intellectual honesty and unflinching drive to confront her demons and challenge her viewers’ moral values. It’s comforting to think that she may have found relief along the way within her artistic process.