Monday, April 9, 2018

Show Review: Sally Mann, A Thousand Crossings

The executive summary is: go see this show if humanly possible. With the caveat that it is Art and you need to be open to that. If you go in with some thickheaded photographer's eye getting all judgey about sharpness or technique (Mann is a better technician than you are, shush), you will be disappointed, and you will miss the point. Ditto if you enter all fascinated by collodion processes.

The curators will try to distract you with chatter about process in a couple of the show elements. Ignore the movies, at least initially. One is a distraction, and the other two are interesting as codas, but not integral to the show.

The show travels, and here are the other venues:

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
        June 30–September 23, 2018
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
        November 20, 2018–February 10, 2019
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
        March 3–May 27, 2019
Jeu de Paume, Paris
        June 17–September 22, 2019
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
        October 19, 2019–January 12, 2020

The catalog, at $45, is an insane bargain. It reproduces the show in full, I think, and contains a lot of other pictures and a tremendous amount of commentary some of which is, I assume, interesting after a fashion. I admit there's a certain amount of droning on about wet plate processes, as if that mattered. But the pictures are excellent and the book is enormous.

Further discussion "after the jump" as they say,

As longer time readers know, I am unabashedly a tremendous fan of Sally Mann. You have been warned.

Ones first thought upon seeing the show is that it's some sort of retrospective. That was certainly my thought. I was wrong, it isn't. It's built largely out of work we've seen before, work from the last 25 years or so, but large chunks of Mann's oeuvre are not represented at all, and we see, after a while, that the show is a single coherent whole. It sums up and pulls together a bunch of ideas that Mann has been working on. I dare say it is not the culmination, but it is a checkpoint, a statement of a current incarnation of an idea, or a set of ideas.

This is a set of ideas that has, in one form or another, in one facet or another, long been present in Mann's work. This is the first serious effort to pull it together under one roof.

We'll see a lot of familiar pictures, but nothing is a simple repeat of stuff we've seen before, everything is recast, refocused, to clarify a single set of ideas.

There's quite a bit of stuff you can learn about how to present a show, here. If you're interested in Secret Decoder Ring kinds of things, be attentive to framing and matting, at least on your second or third pass through. I (as of this moment) intend a follow-up piece looking at these minutiae, more or less just for fun.

But let's look at the show.

We open with "Family", a gallery made up for the most part of photographs from Immediate Family, but an edit of those pictures to focus on Family rather than the innocence and exuberance of childhood and summer. This is the basis upon which Mann's work rests, and we'll see it again in the middle, and at the end. Family is the thread that goes through the whole show. Children at play, family, the things that make up family. The ups, the downs.

One of the things the attentive photographer should take away from this, the first room in the show, is that Mann is a superb technician. She can shoot, she can print, she can edit, she can do it all, and she does it better than you or I can. Quite apart from being an artist, she need bend her knee to exactly nobody on the technical details of photography.

Next up is "The Land", a gallery of pictures which at least overlap with the "Southern Landscapes" work. Here we see, if we read attentively (or just know the work), signs of what is to come. Among these murky pictures we find a concrete grave, the bridge from which Emmett Till was thrown -- looking for all the world like any bridge across a river -- and the muddy shoreline where his body was later found. There's a scarred tree, and a burned out plantation house. If you don't know what these things are, and you don't read the text, you're going to be surprised a couple of rooms later.

If you do, a sense of foreboding should start to steal over you. This show is gonna get tough. Get your big boy pants on and pay attention.

"The Land" is, like the rest of Mann's photographs of land, surprisingly wet. Mann seems to be interested in shorelines, in the ambiguous region between river and land, between lake or swamp, and land. These are interesting sites. These are where Things Happen, or have happened.

I see "The Land" as the place occupied by "Family", it's where Mann's southern family lives, and it has history, and that history is bound up with race and slavery.

Onwards to the next gallery. "Last Measure" is a dark room with enormous prints of serendipitously damaged wet plate photos. As much blotch and defect as picture, these are drawn from the "Battlefields" work. Banal pictures of land, land upon which civil war battles were fought. Ordinary, boring, grass and trees which happen to be soaked with blood and history. This is The Land seen again. This land looks like any other land, but it is on these particular bits of land, more or less at random, the United States fought her Civil War. A war that was about slavery as much as it was about anything else, a war steeped in the Issue Of Race. A war we still can't get over, a war apparently with us forever, the shame of it tucked away under defiance and bravado. On both sides, to be fair, but we're in The South at the moment.

These are going to be difficult pictures for most photographers to approach, they're soft, they're all messed up. They're "underexposed" and so on. You gotta let go if you want to take these things in.

So now we're ready. We've seen "The Family", "The Land" they live in, and that terrible fraught history of the "Last Measure" so we proceed to "Abide With Me." This is a single large gallery, with related but different material down each side. This room binds the previous ideas together.

We begin with bulletin boards with snapshots and personal notes pinned to them. "Gee-gee" (Virginia), the black woman who was hired to care for Sally Mann as a child is shown here, in some breadth, a little of her youth, a little more of her later years. Virginia is the heart of the show. She embodies the tradition of the well-to-do white families hiring much less well-to-do black women to take care of the children and the home. Virginia was, and remained, and is now (long after her death), Family. She was also black, with all that implies and implied.

Down one wall we have a large series of pictures of churches. 8x10 contacts shot on ortho film, if you must know, but the important bit is that these are the small churches with black congregations. The kinds of churches that were central to Virginia's life. The kinds of church she attended every Sunday, at which she sang, and prayed, and socialized every week. Intermingled with these are 4 more pictures that belong with the first gallery, with "Family", of Virginia with Mann's own daughter, also named Virginia. These pictures of "The Two Virginias" are among my favorites, by the way.

Down the other wall, there are pictures (tintypes) mostly from The Great Dismal Swamp, a region between the states of North Carolina and Virginia (why does that name keep popping up?) where runaway slaves hid, and lived. Again we see the theme of water, land, and the ambiguous territory between them. Intermingled with these pictures, in counterpoint to the "Two Virginias" pictures, are pictures from Mann's "Men" work, ambiguous, very large, portraits of black men. These men could be slaves, or law students (at least one is the latter, and none are actually the former).

We have on the one hand Virginia (and Virginia) and her churches, on the other hand we have the black men and their (?) swamp, in, yes, Virginia. Connecting the two is another picture nominally from the "Men" work, of a black man singing.

This is the center of the whole thing. That whole mystery and tension and problem of race and history and family that is so very very Southern. There is love here, there is racism, there is a history of hate and fear. There is land, there is family. It's all entangled inextricably, it seems.

And finally, we return to the family with "What Remains", the name retasked from a book which contains some of these pictures. Here we have more contemporary pictures of Mann's family. Her pictures of her husband (drawn from the "Proud Flesh" work, mostly) detailing his muscular dystrophy and her wild and boundless love for him. We see work drawn from "Faces", closeup very long exposures of her children. We see some selfies, a 3x3 grid of ambrotypes. This is the base, the foundation of the artist's life. This is the Mann Family, and they live in The South.

On one wall there is a triptych of enormous prints, facial closeups of Jessie, Emmett, and Virginia, the three supernaturally beautiful children. On another wall, there is doorway, flanked by similar portraits of the two girls. Emmett is absent. Through the door, where Emmett ought to be, we see "The Turn", Larry standing on a high point above the Mann property, turning away from the camera. If you don't know where Emmett is, you should google it.

This gallery gives us, perhaps, a little uptick of hope and joy, but it's potent, poignant, painful as well. Family's like that. The South is like that too. I mean, I suppose anywhere is like that, but Mann's telling us about The South, not Düsseldorf. And boy oh boy is The South ever like that.

Sitting in that room, I reflected that if I were Sally Mann I would rather be stripped naked and set in this room for the duration of the show, than put this work out there. But that's how she rolls, isn't it?

Following, we have a couple rooms with movies you can watch. Mann is always charming to watch, as well as beautiful. In the last room three small pictures of Bill T. Jones, modern dancer, who collaborated with Mann on this little coda. This piece feels unfinished, a new piece of the puzzle, perhaps. A new direction? This is really the tell that this isn't the culmination, it's just an expression of the current state.

This thing is monumental, it is easily the best art show I have ever seen. It is complex, it has vast depth. It's emotionally powerful, if you're open to it. It represents a vast labor, a vast amount of consideration. It is profoundly conceptual, in the best possible sense. It's not a concept thought up over beers, and then simply executed, it is a conceptual piece that has grown out of 25 or 30 years of full time labor, looking, poking around, writing, thinking, and making picture after picture after picture trying to find that heart of the matter.

Sally Mann's a digger, and she's not done digging.


  1. That's one hell of a review. Thanks.

  2. Andrew, I am heading to DC in a week from tomorrow. I have not read this post and I'm fighting my inclination to do so. I respect your POV!

    But I too am an unabashed fan of Sally Mann and consequently I need to see this without bias.

    I will check-in with you On May 13.

    1. My remarks will still be here when you get back, no hurry ;)

      But if you need me to revert the past to "draft" so you can't read it, say the word!