Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings at the National Gallery of Art

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on May 8, 2018
Sally Mann (American, born 1951), Battlefields, Antietam (Black Sun), 2001, gelatin silver print, Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.  Photo via NGA press office.

Although she is among the most prominent and celebrated American photographers, the current exhibition of Sally Mann’s photographs of family and the American South is the first major survey of the artist’s work scheduled to travel both through the US and internationally.  Comprised of 115 photographs, many exhibited for the first time, the exhibit is on view on the ground floor of the West Building of the National Gallery through May 28, 2018.  Accompanied by a copiously illustrated catalogue, the exhibition is an illuminating and deeply moving exploration of the 40+ year career of this remarkable artist.

Organized into five sections, the exhibition opens with a group of family pictures Mann created between 1985 and 1994.  These include a number of images from her 1992 publication Immediate Family, her poignant and often unsettling photos of her three children taken primarily in the artist’s country property on the Maury River near Lexington, VA.  In these works the sense of time and place, even the feeling of the humid summers is strongly felt.  Mann’s ability to photograph her children in a bold but intimate way that is neither sentimental, nor coolly detached, makes these pictures extraordinarily compelling.  They document the freedom and beauty of childhood, but also its complexity, including suggestions of sensuality and frank nudity.

It was the latter effect that made Immediate Family the object of controversy when it was first released, but the surprising notoriety it engendered increased awareness of the artist’s independent vision, and only secured her decision to stay and work in her home town of Lexington.  As Mann wrote in that publication, “The place is important; the time is summer.  It’s any summer, but the place is home and the people here are my family.”

Sally Mann (American, born 1951), Easter Dress, 1986, gelatin silver print, Patricia and David Schulte. Photo via NGA press office.

Most of the photos in this section are black and white taken with an 8” x 10” view camera and printed on gelatin silver paper.  Mann’s tight and sensitive control of light and shadow and of all the gradations in between is already marked in these early works, as it would become more evident in her landscape pictures of the next section.  Here, in the photos of her children, her natural feeling for composition, often planned but frequently not, is clear.  An example of the former would be Easter Dress (1986).

Arranged and shot against the landscape scene with gray clouds sitting above horizontal clotheslines, the perspective is classically planar and perfectly balanced.  In the center her eldest daughter Jessie stands wearing the bright white Easter dress that Mann herself had worn, and which was made by the child’s namesake great-grandmother.  Jessie’s grandfather stands near the tree that anchors the composition on the left, while her two siblings stand near the fence behind her.  Jessie is the only figure facing the camera, a spot of bright whiteness against the cloudy dark ground.  Summer dominates in these pictures, a time when the children were allowed to spend much time without clothes, especially in and around the nearby water.

Among the most stunning of these pictures is Jessie at Nine (1991) showing the girl tensely poised with head up before diving into the river from an outcropping of rocks.  If she had wings  she’d look like a classical Nike about to alight with victory.  Again, the image is composed of large forms that range from gray to black; the child’s slim and tanned body another gray tone and the only vertical in the picture.   Among the few color pictures in this group, River Dance  and Bloody Nose (1991) possibly taken on the same day, stand out; the first for the bright figure of the naked girl standing on a floating tire against the dark grey rocks behind her, the second for the brilliant red of the blood streaming down Emmet’s chest and arms from his nosebleed.  Another quotation from Mann’s writing about these pictures seems appropriate here:

“We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up.  It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality and beauty. But we tell it all without fear, and without shame.”

Sally Mann (American, born 1951), Virginia, Untitled (Blue Hills), 1993, gelatin silver print, printed 1997, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1998. Photo via NGA press office.

The next section brings the focus to the land in photos that begin to demonstrate more profoundly Mann’s association with both her home in Virginia, as well as areas further south.  They reveal her love for its density, its particular beauty, but also her awareness of its troubled past—a past that seems constantly present.  As she wrote in 2007:  “Living in the South means being both nourished and wounded by the experience.”  These photos show Mann’s sensitivity to the haunted quality of the southern landscape, as well as to the changing character of the light from Virginia’s often mist-laden hills to the brilliant light of the Georgia or Mississippi sky.  In Virginia she tended to photograph in the very early morning or the late afternoon when the light is softer, and the landscape seems organized in bands of tone rather than detail.  In Virginia, Untitled (Blue Hills) of 1993 she seems to have cupped the lens with her hand, giving a feeling of a privileged view into an imaginary sublime place completely devoid of human intervention.

Sally Mann (American, born 1951), Deep South, Untitled (Fontainebleau), 1998, gelatin silver print, printed 2017, Stephen G. Stein Employee Benefit Trust. Photo via NGA press office.

Her later picture, Deep South, Untitled (Fontainbleau) taken during her 1998 sojourn through Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, shows the strong sunlight filtering through a dense canopy of trees, while in the foreground the curve of the foot of an ancient tree is balanced by branches coming horizontally toward it.  Looking at these photos I kept thinking of French classical landscape paintings of the seventeenth century, like those of Poussin and Claude.

In the section called “Last Measure,” echoing Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, the emotional level begins to rise, at times so intensely that the viewer may feel it welling up unexpectedly.  Here are Mann’s 2001-3 photos of Civil War battle fields, some of the worst places, where the blood of so many slaughtered still seems to linger in the ground, while ghosts occupy the air.  At a time when many photographers were switching to new digital technologies, Mann went in the opposite direction.  As suggested by Drew Gilpin Faust in his excellent catalogue essay “The Earth Remembers: Landscape and History in the Work of Sally Mann,” the artist not only followed in the footsteps of her photographic predecessors, but used their actual technologies,” the difficulties of doing this in the field itself being perhaps “a belated ritual of respect for the thousands of men who were honored with no ceremony at the time of their deaths.”

Using an 8 x 10 inch view camera with hood and bellows, she began to employ the wet-plate colloidal process that was common then.  However, where those nineteenth century photographers wanted a perfect negative, Mann welcomes the accidents that she even encourages with this process.  The result is images showing strange focus shifts, light leaks, scars, fogging and light flares that give these pictures their special character.

Of them, two made an indelible impression:   Battlefields, Antietam (Starry Night) and Battlefields, Antietam (Black Sun).   

Sally Mann (American, born 1951), Battlefields, Antietam (Starry Night), 2001, gelatin silver print, Alan Kirshner and Deborah Mihaloff Art Collection. Photo via NGA press office.

The “stars” in the former are flares from the technique, but they so mimic the appearance of stars and comets over the ominously dark field that one can’t help but think of François Millet’s Starry Night that was the inspiration for Van Gogh’s later apocalyptic work.

The latter is even more chilling—what looks indeed like a black sun sinking over a black field, while the sky is swirling.  It recalls the writings of survivors remembering the terrible silence after the days’ fighting ended when the cries of the wounded could be heard in the darkness.  At a time when it seems that so many are so anxious to simply wipe out that history, Mann’s attempts to come to terms with it from a southerner’s point of view seems courageous and pertinent.  Last year she wrote, “I’ve been coming to terms with the history into which I was born, the people in that history, and the land on which I live…Now,  in this present, there is an urgent cry rising, one that compels me again and again to try to reconcile my love for this place with its brutal history.”

The quotation is actually the preface to the next section called “Abide with Me,” that title taken from the spiritual that asks for God’s presence through life’s trials as well as in death.  Here are many of Mann’s portraits of African American men (a 2006-2015 series called Men), as well as images of African American churches in the South.  Included here is a mini- essay on the life of Virginia “Gee-Gee” Carter, the black woman who effectively raised the artist and her brothers, as well as Mann’s own children.   Her 2015 comment on this fact makes it clear why she and the curators included this portion in the exhibit:

“This reflects…the fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private…Could the feelings exchanged between two individuals so hypocritically divided ever have been honest, untainted by guilt or resentment?”  The conundrum here is not new.  Sally Mann’s personal experience with it is expressed in authentic images that make that contradiction perfectly clear.

Nevertheless, if the Civil War portion of the exhibit is fraught with strong emotion, the last section is even more profound in this regard.   Titled “What Remains” the photographs are hard to describe without suggesting a cloying sentimentality that they do not have.  They again focus on family and self, meditating on time and its ravages, on mortality and love.

Here are pictures of the physical effects late-onset muscular dystrophy on her husband’s body that are both defiant and terrible to contemplate.  Married for 48 years, the power of an unwavering love emanates from them.  One of them, Was Ever Love, literally had me in tears, perhaps already primed by the previous sections.  This happened was when I was reading the poetic line by Ezra Pound on the wall as one enters the room:

Sally Mann (American, born 1951), Was Ever Love, 2009, gelatin silver print, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the S.I. Morris Photography Endowment. Photo via NGA press office.

“What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee.

As may be evident, the installation is roughly chronological, but it also builds both psychologically and emotionally.  The wall texts are unusually informative without being intrusive, and the poetic quotations like the Pound excerpt are particularly sensitive to the content of the works exhibited.  Do not miss this opportunity to see them.

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings.  National Gallery of Art, West Building.  March 4-May 28, 2018.  For more information about the exhibitions including hours, directions and programming visit