The end is coming for us all, and if you don’t believe it, Sally Mann’s work heralds a poignant and impactful reminder. Memory, family, place, desire, death. Mann’s career has been shaped by looking at the things no one wants to look at or acknowledge: moldering bodies at an outdoor scientific research facility, children in poses ambiguous and suggestive of sexuality and possible abuse, patients in hospice care, land scarred by war and racial struggles. Her images embrace mortality and vulnerability and push photography to a place that is at once old and new.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, the exhibition of roughly 110 photos organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Peabody Essex Museum, presents an extensive survey spanning four decades of work. The exhibition, which will tour the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Jeu de Paume in Paris and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through early 2020, is the first to assemble all of Mann’s major series and to consider them in the context of the Virginia-born photographer’s identity as a Southern artist in the tradition of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Mann herself has written that she feels “an urgent cry rising that compels me again and again to try to reconcile my love for this place with its brutal history.”
Recognized as one of the most important photographers of her time, Mann first came to international prominence in the 1990s during the culture wars of that decade with Immediate Family, a series of complex and enigmatic pictures of real-life incidents and posed moments focused on her own children. Organized in five sections ”” Family, The Land, Last Measure, Abide with Me and What Remains ”” A Thousand Crossings opens with these photographs taken in the 1980s. Shot with an 8×10-inch view camera at the 425-acre farm in Rockbridge County in Virginia’s verdant Shenandoah Valley, which has served as the crucible for much of Mann’s creative life, the photographs flew in the face of all the fictions of perfection and innocence usually portrayed in photographs of children. Here was no hiding behind carefully pressed party dresses or scrubbed faces with features composed in neutral expressions. Through Mann’s lens, the viewer stumbles unaware into a world of raw emotion, where no rules apply, made all the more unswerving and revealing by the children’s occasional nakedness. Mann has said this unstructured childhood was not unlike her own: “Like my children today, I wore no clothes until kindergarten interfered with my feral life, a life of freedom not only from clothes but from constraints of any kind, limited only by the boundaries of our property and the pack of boxers (twelve in all) that were my nursemaids.”
In “Jessie at 6” (1988), Mann’s eldest daughter leans naked against a tree at the family’s secluded cabin and engages the camera with an insouciance and constancy that belies her unclothed state. “On the Maury” (1992) depicts the family from afar, floating downstream along the Maury River, which winds through Mann’s family farm. The bucolic image is evocative of the ineffable flow of time and the family’s unending movement into the future and away from this idyllic moment.
In the 1990s, Mann turned her attention to the land of the Deep South, traveling through Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, where she recorded swamplands, fields and ruined estates. Hoping to capture what she called the “radical light of the American South,” Mann’s pictures of Virginia glow with a tremulous radiance, whereas those made in Georgia and Mississippi are harsher and more direct.
In these photographs, Mann first experimented with the nineteenth- century collodion wet-plate process, a technique rife with accident and eventuality. Invented by British sculptor Frederick Scott Archer, who first published his process in 1851, the method dominated photography through the end of the American Civil War. By the late 1880s, such innovations as gelatin emulsion, celluloid film base and roll film had all but rendered the technique obsolete.
The original process used by Mann involves coating a glass plate with collodion, a sticky liquid made from guncotton (also known as nitrocellulose, an explosive nitrated product) dissolved in grain alcohol and ether. The glass plate is then submersed in a bath of silver nitrate, where silver particles attach to the collodion and make it light-sensitive. The wet plate is loaded into a film holder attached to the back of a large-format camera. After exposure the plate is washed in a chemical bath until the image appears. The entire process must take place within six minutes before the collodion dries. Mann would then burnish the fixed plate with cotton balls and varnish the surface to halt silver oxidation. Clear glass plates become negatives for prints; black glass plates become one-of-a-kind originals.
Interested in collodion processes since her twenties ”” Mann first learned the technique from photographers France Scully Osterman and Mark Osterman ”” she further imbued many of her landscape images with a brooding atmosphere by using old lenses, or by intentionally altering her negatives so the resulting prints are streaked or clouded.
Unlike her nineteenth-century predecessors, who went to great lengths to make their collodion prints as uniform and flawless as possible, Mann found in the medium’s blurring, veining, fading and peeling ”” coupled with her use of antique uncoated lenses (some with mold growing inside) and a view camera from the early 1900s that allowed for soft focus, fogging and flares ”” the perfect visual metaphor for communicating the ravaging power of time. “Deep South, Untitled (Scarred Tree)” (1998), an image taken in Woodville, Mississippi, depicts a tree that survived an attempt to take it down that stands out starkly against a blownout field in the background. The image pays homage to Gustave Le Gray’s “Beech Tree, Forest of Fontainebleau” (c. 1856). Like Le Gray, Mann made no attempt to capture the entire tree; her eye, and ours, is instead focused on the healed gash. Mann, who began her career as a writer ”” she earned a BA in literature and an MA in creative writing from Hollins College (now Hollins University) ”” sees the allegorical in the visual, and here, as in much of her work, the landscape as a holder of memory.
Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Fall 2018 / Vol. 40 / No. 4