The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, Remembered Light & Landscape

Sally Mann, <em>On the Maury</em>, 1992. Gelatin silver print. Private collection. © Sally Mann.
Sally Mann, On the Maury, 1992. Gelatin silver print. Private collection. © Sally Mann.
On View
High Museum of Art
October 17 – December 15, 2019
Jackson Fine Art
October 17 – December 21, 2019

Sally Mann’s On the Maury (1992) shows distant figures in a canoe pulling a lone floating child in the water behind them, small against the verdant Virginia landscape. Suggesting both the passage of life and the significance of the land, it opens Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings. The first major retrospective of Mann’s work ends its five-venue tour at the High Museum of Art.

Atlanta’s High Museum is a meaningful conclusion—the only truly Southern one—for an exhibition that foregrounds the American South. Curators Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel grouped Mann’s work into five themes: Family, The Land, Last Measure, Abide with Me, and What Remains. Almost 50 previously unpublished photographs provide fresh insight.

Accompanying On the Maury is a timeline of Mann’s life and a 2009 poem by contemporary Scottish poet John Glenday that establishes the interconnection of word, image, and personal life. Glenday’s “Landscape with a Flying Man” alludes to the mythical Icarus’s fall, imagining that it is not hubris but love that draws him back to earth. It suggests the bonds of people and landscape that runs throughout Mann’s retrospective.

Sally Mann, Battlefields, Antietam (Black Sun), 2001. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York. © Sally Mann.

Well-known early images in Family foretell the foregrounding of landscape in Mann’s later career. As the exhibition progresses with The Land, Mann’s focus on the natural world increases, as does her expressive use of the wet-plate collodion process. Some landscapes are elegiac, manifesting both the South’s natural splendor and racist, violent past—often through absence. Deep South, Untitled (Concrete Grave) and Deep South, Untitled (Emmett Till River Bank) (both 1998), respectively show a sepulchral concrete form and the fractured riverbank near to the place where Till’s body was recovered.

Last Measure features ten large gelatin silver prints against a sepia wall. Mann’s romanticism reaches an apex in these pictures of long-abandoned sites of Civil War battles marred by patches, specks, and scratches from the wet-plate collodion process. These marks evoke subjectivity and time, and, by extension, their obfuscation of memory and history. One of the more dystopian visions, Battlefields, Antietam (Black Sun) (2001), abstracts the defunct battlefield into a nightmarish scene with twin dark orbs in its dark sky.

Sally Mann, Blackwater 25, 2008–2012. Tintype. Collection of the artist. © Sally Mann.

Probing the conundrum of Southernness in Last Measure, Mann crafts a fantasy in which nature and artifice co-exist. It suggests the constructed, manifold nature of the South. Human actions and artificial boundaries assign cultural signifiers to bodies and land alike: Black and white, Southern and Northern. Curator Sarah Kennel writes about Mann’s particular vision of the South and its broader applications:

it shows us that all the issues we want to project onto ‘the South’ are also broadly national concerns about where and who we are as a nation right now: how we reconcile with history and injustice, coming to terms with whiteness and the legacies of racism, how to see landscape as a repository of history and trauma.

These are the subjects continue in Abide with Me, which addresses the South’s legacy of racial oppression most directly.

Abide with Me includes the greatest concentration of formerly unpublished images. Its title lifted from a 19th-century hymn, this section brings together historical African-American churches, tintypes of rivers and swamps, and new images from the “Men” (2006–15) series. The tenebrous tintypes include pictures of the Blackwater and Nottoway Rivers that once were part of the Underground Railroad and the site of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. These are paired with selections from “Men,” which both grapple with the cruelties against black men in the South and aim to forge connections through the act of picture making. Flanked by Blackwater tintypes as if to suggest the connection of land and bodies, Men, Stephen (2006–2015) shows the man’s face in profile. Shadow masks his eyes, and his face is softened by grainy texture.

Sally Mann, The Turn, 2005. Gelatin silver print. Private collection. © Sally Mann.

A Thousand Crossings culminates with a return to Mann’s family in What Remains. It includes a series of commanding portraits of her adult children made with long exposure time, images of her husband (who suffers from late-onset muscular dystrophy), and a rare series of self-portraits. The exhibition closes with The Turn (2005), which shows a figure striding into a foggy Virginia landscape. It’s paired with text by Mann: “what will last, beyond all of it, is the place.” It comes full circle, suggesting our fleeting connection to the landscapes we inhabit and returns to the poem that opens the exhibition: In “Landscape with a Flying Man,” Glenday suggests the universality of Icarus’s fate as he succumbs to the earth: “The soul makes a thousand crossings, the heart, just one.” Mann—Glenday’s titular flying man, perhaps—shows us the beauty in its fleeting, luminous splendor.

A smaller exhibition at Atlanta’s Jackson Fine Art, Sally Mann: Remembered Light & Landscape, is on view through December 21. It begins with a selection from “Remembered Light” (1999–2012), Mann’s documentation of the late Cy Twombly’s empty studio. Paint flecks, beams of light, and objects attest to the absence of the artist. Next, “Deep South” (1998) shows landscapes and ruined architecture. Towering columns or the crumbling walls of plantations appear chillingly spectral in Mann’s murky, tea-toned, silver gelatin prints. Finally, a series of five landscapes bring Georgia—the site of the two exhibitions—to the fore, though they read as unpopulated, alien places, evidencing Mann’s expressive use of her medium.


Rebecca Brantley

Rebecca Brantley is a writer, curator, and educator. She is the Director of the Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art and Assistant Professor of Art at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

All Issues