Sally Mann is one of my favorite photographers, and so I was excited to see the touring exhibition, Sally Mann. A Thousand Crossings come to the Jeu de Paume. It’s apparently the first full scale exhibition of her work, ever. It may be that all the photographs did not travel to Paris, but for the first full scale exhibition of Mann’s work, I was surprised at the relatively small scale. Indeed, a number of the photographs of her children that I find most interesting were not included; images of the children without clothes, provocative, performing precociously for the camera. When Mann first published these photographs a controversy raged that accused her of making pornographic images of her own children. The images included of her children in Sally Mann. A Thousand Crossings are much easier to view, their naked bodies placed further into the background of the photograph, thus ensuring the contemplative, as opposed to confrontational, status.
That said, for me, the highlight of the exhibition was her photographs of the deep south landscapes. In the 1990s, Mann set out with her 8 x 10 inch camera and tripod, journeyed alone through the land of the country that gave her a white privileged identity: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and of course Virginia where she grew up. Mann went searching for the violence, suffering and death that her country was built on. The results are hauntingly beautiful landscapes, filled with ghosts and spirits, sometimes looking like burial grounds, at others as though the dead souls still hover over the earth. In addition to being about death, destruction and injustice, the images of the south are about time: their surfaces show the time it takes to shoot a photograph, and we cannot help but notice the time that has passed since the events that scarred the land. And because her camera seems to capture the spirits still breathing, we are confronted by the fact that time has stood still, nothing has changed since Emmett Till and his people were brutally slaughtered.
A particularly profound photograph shows a tree with a scar that may have healed, but looks as though the wound could open at any moment. The tree bears the open wound of an America that has never made reparations for its treatment of its African American slaves. Let alone all those who were once and continue today to be beaten, savaged, provoked, and murdered. The tree is a direct reference to Gustave Le Gray’s Beech Tree (1855-57) both for a composition that cuts off the top of the tree, and also for the tree’s animation as the sign of all that it has witnessed. Mann’s debt to the nineteenth century is also underlined by her use of the albumen print process for this series, a process that enables her to invoke the presence of the past on the surface of the photograph.
In the early 2000s, Mann went in search of the battlefields of the American Civil War. Again, because America has never formally acknowledged its racial history, particularly the murder of those who fought in the civil war as well as the flogged and the lynched, the raped and the stolen, of course their sprits continue to haunt the landscape. It is as though Mann waits, sitting still in the silent landscape, until the past and its secrets come to her camera. The power of these haunted landscapes is so overwhelming that I felt tears well up in my eyes. History is caught in a broken branch, a shadow falling across the image, and also, in the flaws of the image that come with the nineteenth-century collodion process. For this series, she began her process of coating a glass plate with collodion, taking the photograph before it dries, and then bathing it in silver gelatin, to bring light to the exposure. The uneven distribution of collodion on the plate, the leftover presence of dust and other impurities on the glass, and the chance of the drying process give birth to the spirits that ravage the landscape and the surface of the image. While many of Mann’s images show a radiant light, even in the darkest of landscapes, the images speak the tragedy of America.
Later in the 2000s Mann started to photograph her husband’s body deteriorating from a muscular dystrophy. However, what is most striking about his body is not any revelation of its fragility, but its vulnerability and fragility in the eye of his wife’s camera. Knowing of their relationship, the photographs take on added power. Because in his naked body revealed to the world, it is as though their intimacy and love, his trust of her and her respect of him are made visible. His atrophying body is nothing like the image of strong, powerful men we are told are attractive, and yet, because his body is infused with Mann’s love, respect and tenderness, it is powerful. In the fall of light on his back, the delicate curve of his torso, or in the discovery of the veins on his arms, this body is so overwhelmingly beautiful.