Bondo Wyszpolski

Sally Mann: a photographer’s dark vitality

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“Sally with camera” (about 1998), by R. Kim Rushing. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Sally Mann

Through light to darkness, and back again
“Sally Mann: a thousand crossings,” at the Getty (a review)
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Despite the usual anticipation, my reactions were lukewarm after viewing “Sally Mann: a thousand crossings,” at the J. Paul Getty Museum through Feb. 10.
That was, however, before becoming immersed in the smart and readable catalogue written and edited by Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel, with insightful guest contributions. Understanding the photographer’s background and what has compelled her to create diverse, in-depth series of images, has only increased my appreciation of Mann’s achievements. That’s not to say I’m now overly wowed by her pictures, but it does mean that I’m more attentive to them than I was before.
The Lexington, Virginia hospital in which Sally Mann was born, in 1951, was formerly the home of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. This is a curious biographical fact because it presages Mann’s later interest in documenting/evoking the war that for so many years divided our nation.
Although she may have been born and raised in the conservative American South, Mann had well-to-do and enlightened parents who encouraged their daughter’s interests and curiosity. She attended Bennington College in Vermont and then Hollins College, in Roanoke, Virginia, where she earned a BA in literature and an MA in creative writing. She has, as they say, a way with words, and along with her images this has culminated in “Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs” (2015), which was a National Book Award finalist. She is also the author of many other books.

“Easter Dress” (1986), by Sally Mann. Gelatin silver print. Patricia and David Schulte. © Sally Mann

Living close to where she spent her youth, Mann and her husband, Larry, had three children, whom Mann often photographed during their adolescence. In many of the pictures that appeared in her book “Immediate Family” (1992) the two two girls and one boy appear nude, seemingly uninhibited kids running about unclothed in a liberal household. I’m not so sure these pictures would have raised eyebrows in France or Germany, but the U.S. at its core has always been a puritanical country. And because the book appeared in the midst of a highly-publicized controversy regarding Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs and the question of the National Endowment of the Arts funding such work, Mann was caught in the firing line.
She was accused of being an irresponsible mother, exploiting if not abusing her children, and these critical barbs came at a time when child pornography was an extremely sensitive matter, and we shouldn’t forget that the McMartin Preschool trial (locally, in Manhattan Beach) was prominent in the news. Well, Mann’s images of her offspring are not suggestive of anything illegal or immoral, and by all accounts the pictures were taken with the full cooperation of the family. If the kids didn’t like certain images or felt embarrassed by them they were allowed to veto their publication.
Ultimately, the real issue or threat appeared to be the vague law of what constituted a pornographic image. Without guidelines, an innocent photo of a child playing in the bathtub might be grounds for a visit from law enforcement. At any rate, Mann seems to have become infamous prior to becoming famous.

“Battlefields, Cold Harbor (Battle)” (2003), by Sally Mann. Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Collectors Committee and The Sarah and William L. Walton Fund. © Sally Mann

History, wanted dead or alive
For nearly 50 years, Virginia “Gee-Gee” Carter was an African-American nanny and domestic employee of the Munger family (that is, Mann’s childhood family), who not only helped raise Sally Munger but also her two older brothers. Eventually, after her marriage, Mann employed Carter to help with her own children. Carter herself had been a widow who raised six children of her own, and by working assiduously, including on her one day off from the Mungers, she was able to send her children to boarding school and to college.
It wasn’t until many years later that Mann realized how thoroughly she and perhaps the rest of her family had taken Carter for granted, never bothering to question what kind of life, inner and outer, she led on her own, when she was with her own family. One imagines, of course, that she would have much preferred being with her own children and then later with her grandchildren as well. I was waiting for a few paragraphs or a sidebar, an interview with one or two of her offspring, to know what they thought of the mother they rarely saw, and certainly couldn’t have spent much time with, but it never came. Carter lived to be 100, and Mann took many pictures of her, but the woman in all those pictures would, in the end, remain a mystery.
However, wondering about “Gee-Gee” Carter led to Mann’s soul-searching exploration of the South’s historic legacy, embodied in the slave trade and then the devastating Civil War of the 1860s. Mann thereafter sought “traces of the past still evident in the present,” that is, the places, the sites, where historic events happened. In one form or another, this seems to have occupied her for the majority of her adult life.

“Battlefields, Antietam (Starry Night)” (2001), by Sally Mann. Gelatin silver print. Alan Kirschner and Deborah Mihaloff Art Collection. © Sally Mann

A prime example would be Mann’s images of Civil War battlefields. She traveled to many of those where the most horrific number of casualties occurred, such as Antietam, Appomattox, and Chancellorsville.
Standing where others before her had stood, in the very terrain where intense conflict resulted in mass suffering and death, she posed important questions: “What does death do to the landscape? What does death do to the earth? Does the earth remember? Do these fields upon which unspeakable carnage occurred, where unknowable bodies are buried, bear witness in some way?”
Antietam was the site of “the bloodiest single day in our national history,” during which as many as 6,500 soldiers lost their lives. Although the landscape may be eerily tranquil now, more than 150 years later, Mann set out to evoke the specter of pain and violent death. Her images are not pretty. They are, instead, gloomy, dark, funereal, streaked and muddied. Upon deeper reflection they seem to embody the chaotic, desperate, lonely, anguished moments of the dying individual. As the soldier dies, the beauty of the land withers and dies with him.

“Blackwater 13” (2008-2012), by Sally Mann. Tintype. Collection of the artist. © Sally Mann

Mann has created these images not only through the filter of her imagination and sensibility, but by employing the same or similar technology that was available and used at the time by those who arrived to document the mutual slaughter in its immediate aftermath. These are psychological portraits of the land and the secrets it forever holds.
A few of these images go a long way towards conveying not just the horror but the dark chaos of war. The same could be said for her “Blackwater” series, which she began shooting in 2008. The Blackwater and Nottoway rivers, and the Great Dismal Swamp, comprise “the inhospitable area in southeastern Virginia where freed and escaped slaves sought refuge in the antebellum era.” These pictures are as bleak and as apocalyptic as the battlefield images, and one word that could describe both series is “desolation.”

In which all things must pass
The artist’s hand is evident in both sets, for she has strewn them with an array of blemishes that, looked at from one angle, imbue each piece with an added patina, although one resulting more from accident than design. But an imposed patina all the same. What I’m saying is that the photographers who walked onto the battlefields in 1862 or 1863 didn’t have to embellish their prints to get the point across, whereas Mann, ostensibly to bring attention to and pay homage to the occasion, tweaks her images in order to evoke a reaction from her viewers. No, that’s not necessarily a criticism, except that there are so many “Blackwater” images in the exhibition and in the book that there’s a sense of redundancy because most of them are too similar to one another. It’s not out of line to suggest that less is more.

“Hatton Pond Baptist” (2008-2016), by Sally Mann. Gelatin silver print. Collection of the artist. © Sally Mann

“Hephaestus” (2008), by Sally Mann. Gelatin silver print. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Kathleen Boone Samuels Memorial Fund. © Sally Mann

Mann also photographed numerous Southern, African-American churches, many of which are or were extremely simple structures, hardly comparable to Mormon temples. In the darkroom she makes the images look faded or washed out, and they could pass for yellowed vestiges of the 1920s and ‘30s. Clearly there’s a reason for this personal, aesthetic approach, but the resulting images do not make us want to linger over them. There are, of course, exceptions (because Mann is always trying different things), but for the most part these are joyless pictures.
Joyless, also (except perhaps for “The Turn,” and even here we have what could be interpreted as a foreboding of death) are the pictures of Mann’s husband, Larry, who was diagnosed with late-onset muscular dystrophy in the latter 1980s. Mann has, in a way, documented his evident decline through images (more blemishes, chemical spots, etc.) that appear to have their own battles with longevity. The physicality of the images is surely a silent but obvious commentary on the subject and his deteriorating condition.

“The Turn” (2005), by Sally Mann. Silver Gelatin print. Private collection. © Sally Mann

In the end, the most compelling images may be the ones made during the late 1980s when Mann turned her camera on her children, her husband, and Virginia Carter. Much of the work since then could be labeled “darkness visible.” While it’s a major show, with the current stop in Los Angeles just the third of six important venues, it wouldn’t lose much at half of its current size. I’m glad that I returned to it and read the catalogue cover to cover, but I feel there’s little on display here that will be missed once its moved on. Even so, perhaps the sense or essence of what Mann has evoked will remain with us rather than clear memories of the work itself.
Sally Mann: a thousand crossings is on view through February 10 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, located in the Getty Center at 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Free; parking $15, or $10 after 3 p.m. Details at ER

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