Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings

May 16, 2018

By Jonah Goldman-Kay, Columbia University

Sally Mann occupies an odd place in the realm of contemporary photography. While she has major gallery representation and is by no means obscure, she has had only a handful of major surveys or retrospectives and, until recently, no scholarly catalogue of her work existed. Her first landscapes, in particular, were met with a lukewarm reception when first displayed as “Mother Land” at Edwynn Houk Gallery. Since then, the works have remained largely overlooked. Despite variations in intent and subject matter, these landscapes were typically viewed collectively, as a static body of work. “Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings,” a major survey of Mann’s work at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., seeks to reevaluate this legacy and to establish Mann as an artist whose practice is critically engaged with the racial, cultural, and historical dynamics of the contemporary South. Through a chronological organization of the landscapes (aided by an indispensable chronology in the exhibition catalogue), the exhibition structures Mann’s experimentation and establishes a linear narrative about her progress as an artist.

The curators have devoted each of the exhibition’s first three rooms to a body of work, ordered chronologically, an arrangement typical for retrospectives. The show, carefully referred to as a “survey,” focuses overwhelmingly on Mann’s landscapes. “We’re not calling this exhibition a retrospective,” says Sarah Greenough, one of the curators of the exhibition. Although the show is not a retrospective, the emphasis on Mann’s later works suggest an attempt at canonizing a narrative of progression, from romantic experimental landscapes to nuanced portrayals of the Southern terrain.

Each room contains the greatest hits of Mann’s first three series, along with a few surprises. In “Family,” stalwarts such as Bloody Nose (1991) and The Perfect Tomato (1990) as well as lesser-displayed works like Emmett Floating at Camp (1991) highlight Mann’s (in)famous “Immediate Family” series, whose blatant display of childhood sensuality catapulted her into the middle of the 1990’s culture wars. Mann’s landscapes, which she began producing in the late 1990’s after her children left home, are divided into their usual groupings—works from the “Deep South” series taken at various sites throughout Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia are displayed in “The Land,” while her images of Civil War battlefields are shown in the “Last Measure” room.

While the decision to begin with works from “Immediate Family” feels retrospectively focused, their inclusion serves a parallel purpose, namely to provide a framework for Mann’s interest in the photographic process. While Mann’s landscapes embrace flaws and mistakes in the negatives, the precision of her technique in the “Immediate Family” prints foregrounds Mann’s excellence as a printmaker. The series “require her to have a technique where she ‘out-Anseled the most meticulous Adams,’” says Greenough of Mann’s precision. At the same time, Mann’s controlled dodging and burning in the “Immediate Family” works also provides a precedent for the manipulation of the negative that defines her landscapes. In addition to highlighting the evolution of Mann’s process, the earlier works also contextualize Mann’s belief that place should be a primary interest for the Southern artist. In this figuration, the exhibition aligns Mann with other Southern photographers like William Eggleston, William Christenberry, and Emmett Gowin who similarly proposed frameworks of Southernness and the traits of a Southern artist.

The evolution of Mann’s landscapes is confirmed by “Abide With Me,” a body of new work on view for the first time at the National Gallery. These new works, catalyzed by Mann’s reflection on her relationship with her African-American nanny Gee-Gee, are Mann’s attempt to navigate the landscape and its subjects in light of the South’s racial history. Tintypes taken in the Dismal Swamp, the site of Nat Turner’s intended escape, are some of the most visceral and dark landscapes in Mann’s oeuvre. Turner was a slave from Virginia who led a failed rebellion against plantation owners in 1831, and he has long been a subject of interest for Mann. While Mann’s early landscapes were criticized as overly saccharine or too reliant on Southern literature, the “Blackwater” tintypes (2008-2012) , a subseries within “Abide With Me,” penetrate and interrogate the fraught history of the Southern landscape. The effects of expired ortho film onto which Mann exposed photographs of all-black churches, are visibly haunted by the specters of the past. Blurs and rays resulting from the instability of the expired photo paper produce swirls of ghostly presence in and around the churches. In the years following the Civil War, these churches sprang up as African-American communities were no longer bound by laws dictating that only white preachers could lead black congregations. While these works use the same antiquated wet collodion process as Mann’s earlier landscapes, the ghostly and apocalyptic nature of the “Abide With Me” photographs remind the viewer of the undeniably present legacy of racial inequity in the South.

Mann’s most recent work, a collaboration with Bill T. Jones, brings full circle these introspective considerations of Mann’s relationship to race and place in the South. “Release on a hillside in Lexington!” Jones yells in an accompanying dance piece, which was filmed during a two day stay at Mann’s farm in the Shenandoah Valley. This untitled piece, the performative component of Mann’s portrait session with Jones, features him standing on a hill, speaking about his experience as an African-American man being photographed while holding various positions. The works in “Abide With Me” focus on race and the Southern landscape as they relate to specific sites and people, individualizing the broad themes of religion, place, history, and race that form the core of Mann’s practice.
Mann’s works have always required the viewer to project personal experience and emotion upon them . While the wet collodion negatives of the “Deep South” and “Battlefields” works contain scratches, blurs, and wrinkles, the prints themselves have always been flat, encouraging the viewer to enter the work, to look beyond the surface of the print, and to find texture and depth. In contrast, these newest works mark a major shift in Mann’s practice. The “Blackwater” series, also made with collodion, are transferred directly and bear ridges, globs, and scratch marks on the surface. Rather than pulling the viewer into the work, Mann is pushing outward toward the viewer. The “Abide With Me” works, no less experimental technically, are also bold in their confrontation with the viewer. This confrontation problematizes romantic readings of her landscapes, while pushing the viewer to place themselves in Mann’s position by interrogating their own relationship with the landscape and its troubled history. In so doing, they retroactively canonize and order Mann’s earlier landscapes.

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. from March 4, 2018-May 28, 2019.

The Journal of Art Criticism
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