Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens: Lord, with me abide! –Hymn
Sally Mann’s haunting black and white photographs are a hymn to the South she loves so ferociously, with all its troubled, tangled, twisted history filled with bitter defeats. The charismatic photographs of her children, of her own black nanny Virginia, who also cared for her children, and of the Civil War battlefields are poignant, bittersweet narratives examining the complexities of race, place, family and faded memory.
Sally Mann is an outlier of sorts, stubbornly choosing to live on her farm in Lexington, Virginia, away from the urban centers where there are collectors, galleries and museums. She shot to fame in 1992 when she published the photographs of her three children in various stages of activity, sometimes nude (a self-described “wild child,” herself she ran around without clothes until she was five) as they went about the business of childhood. These were resoundingly controversial, and they are still what she is most remembered for, although those children are now adults (with the exception of her son Emmett who died in 2016) who were often complicit actors in Mann’s planned narratives.
Published in Immediate Family, these seemingly spontaneous images of her children swimming, sleeping or playing were an artistic breakthrough for the artist. Her pictures of mundane childhood injuries (nosebleeds, swollen insect bites, illnesses) were both heartbreakingly beautiful and disturbing. Many of these images came about in uncomfortable conditions as she sought to get the best picture possible. In the extensive catalog called SALLY MANN: a thousand crossings, there are instructive outtakes of a striking portrait of her young son Emmett in a river in October, looking straight into the camera. It took more than six or seven tries to get it right. And Mann, ever the exacting perfectionist, was herself waist deep in the frigid water searching for the perfect shot.
Around that time in the early nineties, there was much concern about possible prurient content in photography — Robert Mapplethorpe-charged sexual imagery and Jock Sturges’ voyeuristic nude beach photos come to mind here. Mann’s images became part of that political, ethical and aesthetic fraught and very public conversation, even as she skyrocketed to success. But for Mann herself, as she writes in her outstanding memoir Hold Still (her Master’s degree was in creative writing not photography), the impulse for these images was quite different. She says “Maybe this could be an escape from the manifold terrors of child rearing, an apotropaic protection: stare them straight in the face but at a remove — on paper, in a photograph.” Any mother can understand and relate to this need for magical thinking as a way to protect oneself from one’s own ever- present fears.
Like any good series, as the children aged this particular body of work came to a natural conclusion and Mann moved on to the actual land itself and what secrets it might yield. As an only child of fairly indifferent parents, she roamed the land relentlessly on horseback and her profound attachments to it are evident in her evocative landscapes.
Romantic and nostalgic, these landscapes seem like love letters, paeans to a time that never was but existed only in one’s imagination. In 2007, Mann solemnly expressed her challenge this way:
Living in the South means being nourished and wounded by the
experience. To identify a person as a Southerner is always to suggest
not only that her history is inescapable and profoundly formative,
but that it is also imperishably present. Southerners live in the
nexus between myth and reality where that peculiar amalgam of
sorrow, humility, honor, loyalty, graciousness and renegade
defiance play out against a backdrop of profligate beauty.
Not so much landscapes but portraits of the Southern experience, these monochromatic painterly images are filled with spirits, ghosts and demons buried deep in the fertile loam of the earth. Moody and evocative, they delicately decipher and attempt to untangle all sorts of complicated human relationships, to oneself, to history, to family, to white privilege and twisted race relations. Searing in their quiet intensity, poetic beyond expectation, they require thoughtful examination even as they provoke profound unanswerable questions.
There are two particularly moving bodies of photographs in this section. One series is at Antietam, where over 6,500 soldiers died. Mann uses the same technique as the famed Civil War photographers did (remember photography was brand new then). She uses bulky antique cameras and an amber substance called collodium to make a wet-plate technique that is unstable and produces light leaks, streaks and other inconsistencies that she is after. There is a brief but lovely video of Mann in her studio using this technique for a mysterious portrait hoping to be joined by the “angel of uncertainty.” The subject must not move, as Mann exhorts her to “hold still.” She loves this unsteady technique where the mistakes collaborate to make a great picture. While the Civil War photographers were trying to capture a verisimilitude, Mann uses the technique for its ability to conjure up mystical and artfully distorted versions of the real while capturing a perhaps deeper reality. The battlefield series from 2000 is so very dark, almost black like a nuclear winter. In Battlefields, Fredricksburg (Cedar Trees) 2001, the brooding, melancholy landscape has mysterious spirits swirling frenetically in the darkened sky as if the souls of the dead are restlessly watching above. In Battlefields, Antietam (Black Sun) 2001, the horizon is very high and a melancholy black setting sun is setting against a besmirched sky. This is an unsettled landscape never able to right itself, to move on, perhaps a perfect metaphor for the South itself.
Among the most moving images are of her beloved nanny Gee-Gee Carter, a mother of six who worked for the Manns for 50 years, first taking care of Sally and then of Sally’s own three children. Here Mann explores, painfully, her own white privilege and the conundrum of the segregation of her childhood and the intimacy of her (and all of her class and race) had with their black nannies. She even named her daughter Virginia, after Gee-Gee. Her photographs of Gee-Gee as she is aging are poignant and loving.
Ever unflinching, in 2006 Mann takes on death and disintegration as she chronicles her own recovery from a nasty horseback riding accident suffered when her horse had an aneurism. She focused on her face while ruminating on loss of mobility and other age-related issues. Using the ambrotype (wet-plate collodium technique) and the vintage camera lens, she creates spiritual self-portraits (many look like death masks) made more powerful by the grid presentation. The accidental fogging and random light leaks on these purposely off-center self-portraits make them look like they are recently unearthed, somewhat damaged supernatural images from a musty attic somewhere. Mann not only turns the camera on herself, but also photographs her beloved and once strapping husband, Larry, as muscular dystrophy sadly changes his body.
History, the passing of time, mortality, death and decay are all ruthlessly yet poetically examined. In the impressive and beautifully curated art book/catalog, Mann uses her favorite poetry to accompany her pictures. This quotation from Ezra Pound sums up Mann’s work so well:
Nothing matters but the quality
of the affection–
in the end–that has carved the trace in the mind;
dove sta memoria?
–Ezra Pound, 1947
Featured Image: R. Kim Rushing, Sally with camera, c. 1998
Nancy Kay Turner is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.