As long-time readers know, I am very interested in how multi-picture presentations are constructed. So, when I was at the Sally Mann, I noticed certain things and made some fairly detailed notes. In this bit I will discuss what I observed! It might be of interest to you if you're planning a book or an exhibition which has more than a single theme. If you're not, well, maybe skip this one. I'll get pretty detailed, and probably will be "seeing" things that are, well, not necessarily there.
There's a lot of information, to my eye, encoded in the way the pictures are framed and presented. Some of it is, possibly, mere accident.
Start with the first theme, Family. The first room is framed with broad white mats and heavy, somewhat old fashioned looking, white frames. Call this style F.
In the next gallery, The Land, we find black frames, no mats. The film photographs are thin, modern looking, metal frames. The collodion pictures are in a heavier frame. It's not clear to me that there's any significance to the thickness of the frames? Call these two styles L1 for the thin metal frames, and L2 for the thicker wooden (?) frames. I do not think we see anything resembling the L2 frames anywhere else, but they are similar to the F frames except they're black. Are they intended to refer to Family? I am unable to convince myself of this.
Next up, The Last Measure, we have unmatted photographs in thin, modern looking frames, identical to The Land's collodion work, but with no glass. Call this M. It looks a great deal like L1 but lacks glazing.
These are the major themes of the show, presented in a sort of sonata-form style. Three themes, stated fairly baldly, identified by both subject matter and by presentation style. Now let's look at the center of the show.
In Abide With Me we have a bunch of different work, which brings the themes together in a sort of visual fugue. The subject matter makes the references to the multiple themes fairly clear, but let's look at the way the pictures are framed, presented.
On one wall, as noted we have The Two Virginias represented in 4 photographs all framed in style F, because they really are part of Family. Intermingled with those are the photographs of the churches, 8x10 contact sheets floated in a thin modern frame similar to those used in L1 and M but white rather than black. Additionally, the frames are oversized, creating the appearance of a mat. So the churches are themeatically tied to both Family (white frames, and a "mat") but also The Land and The Last Measure by the thin, modern frames.
On the opposite wall, we have the Blackwater tintypes, floated in white metal frames very much like the churches. The Great Dismal Swamp photos are therefore related to the Churches. Perhaps they're places where black people lived, prayed? These tintypes seem to be given to us very much as the Male equivalent of the churches, or possibly the Runaway Slaves equivalent? Whatever the equivalence, a line is being drawn here from one wall to the opposing wall. Intermingled with the Blackwater tintypes are the photographs of Men. These are large, without mat framed very much like L1 (the Land) but the frames are a dark grey rather than a black.
The Men are indicated as related to The Two Virginias by the arrangement in the room, but the framing connects them rather to The Land, The Last Measure, to that grim history of the Southern Landscape as it were. Recall that the pictures of Men are deliberately ambiguous -- are they slaves? models? lovers? strangers?
That critical picture, the picture from Men of the black man singing, that picture that ties the two sides of the room together, is given to us with a white mat and a white frame. I confess that my notes do not extend to the character of the frame, but the connection to the Churches and to the F theme is clear.
Finally, in the last room, What Remains, we have again a variety. The pictures of Larry (the material from Proud Flesh) are with white mats and thin black metal frames, possibly the most traditional possible treatment for modernist photography -- but these are Pictorialist. The white mat suggests F, the frame suggests L1 and connects to the other material (Men, Blackwater) that are framed similarly.
Mann's self portraits, a 3x3 grid of ambrotypes, is in a thin black frame, but no mat (although it may have space around it to suggest a mat, again my notes fail me). The connection to L1 and The Land, again, less relation to Family. The children's closeups, from the Faces series, are a mixture of The Last Measure (not glazed, no mat, thin metal frame) and Men (the frames are dark grey, not black).
The final photograph in the show proper, The Turn, featuring Larry placed where Emmett ought to appear (more or less) is framed L1. It is a picture of Larry in The Land, hence I suppose the obvious connection to The Land photos.
In broad strokes you can probably divide the show up in to white frames (Family, The Two Virginias, Churches) and dark frames (The Land, The Last Measure, Blackwater, Men, and everything in What Remains). Mat versus space-like-a-mat versus no mat seems to be important, but perhaps it's just that the really big prints can't handle a mat, or mat space. Is the glazed versus not-glazed a statement, or merely a function of the type of paper used in the print (the non-glazed prints appear to be quite matte, for example)?
Could we read the white frames as feminine? Familial? Optimistic? And the dark frames as the opposite?
No matter how you slice it, there's a lot going on with the frames, mats, and glazing. On the one hand, even if you don't notice it explicitly, it's certainly going to affect your experience. A heavy white frame and a broad white mat feels radically different than a thin metal frame, black, no mat, no glass. There's no getting around that.