For more than 40 years, Sally Mann (b. 1951) has made experimental, elegiac, and hauntingly beautiful photographs that explore the overarching themes of existence: memory, desire, death, the bonds of family, and nature's magisterial indifference to human endeavor. What unites this broad body of workfigure studies, landscapes, and architectural viewsis that it is all bred of a place, the American South. Using her deep love of her homeland and her knowledge of its historically fraught heritage, Mann asks powerful, provocative questionsabout history, identity, race, and religionthat reverberate across geographic and national boundaries.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, the first major survey of this celebrated artist to travel internationally, investigates how Mann's relationship with her native landa place rich in literary and artistic traditions but troubled by historyhas shaped her work. The exhibition brings together 109 photographs, many exhibited for the first time. On view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art
, Washington, from March 4 through May 28, 2018, the exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog, presenting an in-depth exploration of the evolution of Mann's art, and a short film highlighting her technical process.
"In her compelling photographs, Mann uses the personal to allude to the universal, considering intimate questions of family, memory, and death while also evoking larger concerns about the influence of the South's past on its present," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. "With the acquisition of works from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2014, the National Gallery is now one of the largest repositories of Mann's photographs. We are grateful for the opportunity to work closely with the artist in presenting a wide selection of the work she has created over four decades. "
The seeds for Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings were planted in 2014, when National Gallery of Art curators undertook a review of photographs from the Corcoran Gallery of Art after its collections were placed under the stewardship of the National Gallery. Among the Corcoran's works were 25 photographs by Sally Mann, made from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. With the addition of these works, plus several more acquired through purchase, the National Gallery became one of the largest public repositories of Mann's photographs in the country. The curators' interest in mounting an exhibition of Mann's art deepened when they realized that despite her immense talent and prominence, the full range of Mann's work had not yet received sufficient and widespread scholarly and critical attention.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is organized into five sectionsFamily, The Land, Last Measure, Abide with Me, and What Remains. The exhibition opens with works from the 1980s, when Mann began to photograph her three children at the family's remote summer cabin on the Maury River near Lexington, Virginia. Taken with an 8 x 10 inch view camera, the family picturesrefute the stereotypes of childhood, offering instead unsettling visions of its complexity. Rooted in the experience of a particular natural environmentthe arcadian woodlands, rocky cliffs, and languid riversthese works convey the inextricable link between the family and their land, and the sanctuary and freedom that it provided them.
The exhibition continues in The Land with photographs of the swamplands, fields, and ruined estates Mann encountered as she traveled across Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi in the 1990s. Hoping to capture what she called the "radical light of the American South," Mann made pictures in Virginia that glow with a tremulous light, while those made in Georgia and Mississippi are more blasted and bleak. In these photographs, Mann was also experimenting with antique lenses and the 19th-century collodion wet plate process and printing in a much larger size (30 x 38 and 40 x 50 inches). The resulting photographic effects, including light flares, vignetting, blurs, streaks and scratches, serve as metaphors for the South as a site of memory, defeat, ruin, and rebirth. Mann then used these same techniques for her photographs of Civil War battlefields in the exhibition's third section, Last Measure. These brooding and elusive pictures evoke the land as history's graveyard, silently absorbing the blood and bones of the many thousands who perished in battles such as Antietam, Appomattox, Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness.
The fourth section, Abide with Me, merges four series of photographs to explore how race and history shaped the landscape of Virginia as well as Mann's own childhood and adolescence. Expanding her understanding of the land as not only a vessel for memory but also a story of struggle and survival, Mann made a series of starkly beautiful tintypes between 2006 and 2015 in the Great Dismal Swamphome to many fugitive slaves in the years before the Civil Warand along nearby rivers in southeastern Virginia where Nat Turner led a rebellion of enslaved people on August 21, 1831. Here, Mann's use of the tintype processessentially a collodion negative on a sheet of darkened tinyields a rich, liquid-like surface with deep blacks that mirror the bracken swamp and rivers. Merging her techniques with metaphoric possibilities, she conveyed the region's dual history as the site of slavery and death but also freedom and sanctuary. Mann also photographed numerous 19th-century African American churches near her home in Lexington. Founded in the decades immediately after the Civil War when African Americans in Virginia could worship without the presence of a white minister for the first time, these humble but richly evocative churches seem alive with the spirit that inspired their creation and the memories of those who prayed there.
Also included in Abide with Me are photographs of Virginia "Gee-Gee" Carter, the African American woman who worked for Mann's family for 50 years. A defining and beloved presence in Mann's life, Carter was also the person who taught Mann the profoundly complicated and charged nature of race relations in the South. The final component of this section is a group of pictures of African American men rendered in large prints (50 x 40 inches) made from collodion negatives. Representing Mann's desire to reach across "the seemingly untraversable chasm of race in the American South," these beautiful but provocative photographs examine an "abstract gesture heated up in the crucible of our association," as Bill T. Jones, who in part inspired the series, once said.
The final section of the exhibition, What Remains, explores themes of time, transformation, and death through photographs of Mann and her family. Her enduring fascination with decay and the body's vulnerability to the ravages of time is evident in a series of spectral portraits of her children's faces and intimate photographs detailing the changing body of her husband Larry, who suffers from muscular dystrophy. The exhibition closes with several riveting self-portraits Mann made in the wake of a grave riding accident. Here, her links to southern literature and her preoccupation with decay are in full evidence: the pitted, scratched, ravaged, and cloudy surfaces of the ambrotypes function as analogues for the body's corrosion and death. The impression of the series as a whole is of an artist confronting her own mortality with composure and conviction.