November 16–February 10, 2019
J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center
I know Sally Mann’s work from her 1988 exhibition At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women. Those sweet and beguiling nude images of her young children were highly controversial and fanned the most virulent flames of sex phobia. A tour of the Getty’s massive exhibition of Mann’s work reveals she is so much more.
For more than 40 years, Sally Mann (b. 1951) has made experimental, intimate, and hauntingly beautiful photographs that explore themes of memory, desire, death, the bonds of family, and nature’s indifference to human endeavor. Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, is the first major survey of this celebrated artist to travel internationally, and the first to investigate how Mann’s relationship with her native land, the American South—a place rich in literary and artistic traditions but troubled by history—has shaped her work. The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. The Getty is the only West Coast venue for this international tour, which brings together 110 photographs, many exhibited for the first time.
Mann’s work—photographs of people, places, and things—is united by its focus on the American South. Drawing from her deep love of her homeland and her knowledge of its historically fraught heritage, Mann asks powerful, provocative questions—about history, identity, race, and religion—that reverberate across geographic and national boundaries.
“Sally Mann’s distinctive approach to photographing the South has earned her a special place in the history of a genre that includes many of the greatest names in American photography,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Her complex, evocative landscapes and intimate images of her family are reminiscent of classic work from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but she manages always to give her photographs an individual pictorial and emotive quality that makes them intangibly of our time. The work has a power – all the more impactful for its quiet and ethereal mood – that I am sure will leave visitors deeply moved.” Mann does leave a potent and indelible imprint on our collective photographic culture.
The exhibition is organized into five sections—Family, The Land, Last Measure, Abide with Me, and What Remains. It opens with works from the 1980s, when Mann began to photograph her three children at the family’s remote summer cabin on the Maury River near Lexington, Virginia. Taken with an 8 x 10 inch view camera, the family pictures refute sentimental stereotypes of childhood, instead offering unsettling visions of its complexity. Rooted in the experience of a particular natural environment—Arcadian woodlands, rocky cliffs, and languid rivers—these works convey the inextricable link between the family and the landscape, and the sanctuary and freedom that it provided them.
The second section of the exhibition – The Land – continues with photographs of the fields and ruined estates Mann encountered as she traveled across Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi in the 1990s. Hoping to capture what she called the “radical light of the American South,” Mann made pictures in Virginia that glow with a tremulous radiance, while those made in Georgia and Mississippi often appear bleaker. In these photographs, Mann also experimented with antique lenses and the 19th-century collodion wet-
The fourth section, Abide with Me, merges four series of photographs to explore how race and history shaped the landscape of Virginia as well as Mann’s own childhood and adolescence.
The final section of the exhibition, What Remains, explores themes of time and transformation through photographs of Mann and her family. Her enduring fascination with decay and the body’s vulnerability to the ravages of time is evident in a series of spectral portraits of her children’s faces and intimate photographs detailing the changing body of her husband Larry, who suffers from muscular dystrophy. The exhibition closes with several riveting self-portraits Mann made in the wake of a serious riding accident. Here, her links to southern literature and her preoccupation with deterioration are evident: the pitted, scratched, ravaged, and cloudy surfaces of the photographs function as analogues for the body’s decay. The impression of the series as a whole is of an artist confronting her own mortality with composure and conviction.
Unexpected ghostly portraits of black men reverberate with the textures of history, racism, and torment. They have a timeless, haunting quality and they were some of the best in show.
There is an insightful short film that illuminates the artist’s experimental and inquisitive approach to making images and another short; an interview of an African American man who talks about the emotional process of sitting for the artist-photographer. The exhibition is accompanied by a lushly illustrated catalog, presenting an in-depth exploration of the evolution of Mann’s work.