Sally Mann: A Retropsective Exhibit

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
Through September 23, 2018

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Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful Sally Mann retrospective that’s already cycled through several museums. I caught the show at the Peabody Essex Museum, where (alas!) it will only be on display for a few more weeks. But because it is a retrospective, pieces of this exhibit are likely to find their way closer to you and, indeed, Ms. Mann (born 1951) has been so prolific that any institution with a reputable photography collection will surely have some of her work.

Mann, a native Virginian who still spends much of her time there, always dazzles the eye. She also occasionally ruffles feathers. This is especially the case of images from her collection Immediate Family (1990) that is as advertised: gazes into the lives, faces, and bodies of husband Bruce, son Emmett, and daughters Jessica and Virginia. Some are metaphors—such as a rather obvious evocation of birth—that would be banal, were it not so striking. Some critics have panned such tableaux-like poses as artifice over art, but that’s small potatoes compared to the moralist outcry against unclothed images. Pat Robertson leveled child pornography accusations against Mann. I suppose one could raise consent issues, given that Mann’s children were minors, though her rejoinder has always been that casual nudity was a way of life on their backcountry homestead. You can make up your own mind, but to me there’s a prelapsarian innocence to these images. In fact, I admire the agency she gives to kids. Some exhibit gauzy dream-like qualities; others are like a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life. One image invokes what the hidden child in Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother might have looked like. And whom among us would not like to recapture the swagger and confidence of youth etched upon the face of Emmett Mann and his friend? 

Speaking of Emmett, they say that no one critiques the South like her own sons and daughters. Mann’s Deep South (1999) and other such projects aren’t preachy, but they often resonate with underlying tension. The diffused light of a grove of trees draped with Spanish moss is otherworldly in an attract-repeal fashion. If you detect a ghostly presence of shots of the Tallahatchie River, it’s deliberate. They depict the exact spot where Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955. (And, yes, Till is Mann’s son’s namesake.)  

Images of Civil War battlefields also haunt us. Mann uses large-format cameras, but skews perspectives and overlays the foreground with collodion washes on glass plate negatives that are eerie and messy, as if she is peering through the fog of the past to render sanguinary spills in monochrome. One shot of Antietam—shot from the upward-looking perspective of a trench in which hundreds died—invoked a line from a Neil Young song of a young man's moment of death: “Then I saw black/And my face splashed in the sky.”

The sense of loss and impermanence also mark Mann's 2003 collection What Remains, though to my eye her images of decaying churches are only poignant if you know the back stories, in which case you probably don’t need the image. I found this the weakest part of the show as Mann took too few measures to explain why the images mattered, and most of the decay images lacked intrinsic interest.

The saddest images come from Proud Flesh (2009), which documents her husband’s demise from Muscular Dystrophy. Is anything more horrifying than the journey from robust virility to bone sack death? I took no pictures of these. If any of Sally Mann’s photographs are too personal and too obscene, surely it is these. I wondered how she managed to focus the lens and snap the shutter. I suppose that she managed because genius dwells outside of the human heart.

Rob Weir   

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