ART REVIEW: Negotiating History: Sally Mann’s "A Thousand Crossings" Exhibition and the Question of Photographic Privilege

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings isn’t just a glorious smattering of the artist’s photographs. The exhibition brims with tension between Sally Mann’s identity and a landscape tainted with racist history. 

As a white woman who grew up in the American South, Mann’s representation of history and memory is loaded and heavy with complications. Most of the photographs on display in A Thousand Crossings – on view at the Getty Center until February 10, 2019 –  are about memory and history: a cluster of domestic photographs of her children exploring the Virginia wilderness on vacation is juxtaposed with numerous images of Civil War battlefields, of Southern rivers and streams, of the Black woman who helped raise her, and the Black men she never noticed in her segregated community as a child.  The sense of mystery and wonder she conjures in images of Civil War battlefields – and the swampy river beds where enslaved people found refuge and escape – is challenged by the inherent nature of these locations as sites and reminders of the horrific system of American chattel slavery.
© Sally Mann. Blackwater 3, 2008–2012. Tintype. Collection of the artist
Where Mann sees and recreates a limpid, hazy beauty in knobbled tree trunks, dried-out corn husks, and thickly flowing waters, for people whose families and lives were marked by slavery, by the Jim Crow South, by racism and discrimination and bigotry, the emotional trauma written in these southern landscapes may be less easily separated from their visceral, physical appeal. For white viewers like myself, I can experience these images with a sense of privilege removed from their traumatic charge. As a white woman, I can look at these images, especially, “Antietam,” Mann’s series on the famous Civil War battlefield in Maryland, and focus simply on their hazy, evocative qualities.

I can delight in “Battlefields, Antietam (Starry Night),” a moment of calm before the next fight, with its flickering embers in the dark foreground mirroring the stars in the sky that appear as mere points of light. I have the luxury of choosing not to acknowledge the bloodshed and centuries of pain and suffering that are by their nature carved into those battlegrounds, but are merely implied in Mann’s depictions.
© Sally Mann Battlefields, Antietam (Starry Night), 2001. Gelatin silver print. Alan Kirshner and Deborah Mihaloff Art Collection

And yet because so much of A Thousand Crossings focuses on Mann’s children and of her memories of vacations and idle times with her children when they were young, there’s a deliberate gap in the story Mann is telling about how we consider memory and the past. She and the curatorial team purposefully draw our attention to our own reactions to these very different kinds of pasts: the happy days with family in the Virginia wilderness crystallized forever into single, discrete snapshots are keenly juxtaposed with the nearby images of battlefields, reminding us of the history of the very same landscapes where Mann’s family spent joyful leisure time.

One past is more palatable and seemingly innocent than the other, but both are rooted in their inherent relation to the Southern biological landscape. By including both Mann’s domestic and historical photographic series in A Thousand Crossings, Mann and the curatorial team refuse to let us forget how Mann’s children frolicking by a babbling brook is inseparable from  the landscape’s fraught history.
© Sally Mann. The Ditch, 1987. Gelatin silver print. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Sally Mann and Edwynn Houk Gallery
The first cluster of works in A Thousand Crossings, “Family,” depicts her children on their numerous vacations to the Mann family’s summer cabin in the Shenandoah Valley, which is arguably placed nearest to the entry point to ease you into the darker themes the show tackles. Mann’s now-grown children, often presented in frank, wild nudity (which have garnered substantial controversy), become a part of the immediate landscape of cabin, woods, and river, and thus of the landscape of memory. In “Jessie At Six,” the titular Jessie stands in front of a slender, pale tree, almost bounded by its edges, as if ready to disappear into it, to melt into this idyll forever.

Interestingly, several of Mann’s photographs deliberately highlight the artificial nature of vacation photography, of the idea that what we’re seeing is purely candid. In “Jessie Bites,” Jessie looks sheepishly sideways as she poses with her mother’s arm, which is marked with a faint crescent circle of teeth imprints. And yet, as the wall text notes, the photo itself was staged. Jessie didn’t actually create that bite mark; Mann did. And so even though we can put together a story about a pesky mother-daughter interaction based on the photograph before our eyes, we are aware that it’s not even the true story. Would that artificial quality become a part of the actual memory of the incident, or, as time passed, would the photograph have become the source of the memory?

The only color photographs in A Thousand Crossings also belong to this family-oriented cluster; “Bloody Nose” immediately steals your focus among this small grouping, where the top of the figure’s face is cut off, the blood flowing and merging with red lips as it smears down the torso and onto the boy’s hands and arms. The inclusion of this photograph also highlights the show’s thesis about memory, history, and commemoration: why is this mundane (albeit quite bloody) event something that Mann would have wanted to memorialize in a photograph?
© Sally Mann. Bloody Nose, 1991. Silver dye-bleach print. Private collection
There’s a sense that her children were as much aesthetic subjects as they were small beings dependent on her care - that the desire to clean up the blood--to ameliorate harm--may have been in conflict with her desire to get it on camera--to commemorate this incident for posterity. It’s a question I often think of when I observe artists who use their families as subject matter--but it also ties back into A Thousand Crossings’ interrogation of how memory and the past are generated, and for whose benefit.

When so much of memory and history in the former Confederacy is a tainted, whitewashed endeavor, the show seems to ask, how can Sally Mann, a white woman making images of the American South, preserve both societal and personal memories in a way that doesn’t risk falling into the same patterns?

One of the more touching sections in A Thousand Crossings, titled “Virginia Carter,” unpacks Mann’s relationship to the Black woman who practically raised her, and who worked for her family for fifty years. An entire room in the show is dedicated to fleshing out this woman’s connection to her family, and how Mann perceived the bond between herself and Virginia Carter, who is described as having been a member of her family even during the height of segregation; one of Mann’s daughters is even named Virginia in Carter’s honor. The wall text cites Mann’s own realization of the “fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private.”

Dotting the walls are several works titled “The Two Virginias” that depict both Carter and Mann’s daughter in a variety of playful and charming arrangements. The title is naturally a play on words in several senses: the two Virginias literally photographed; the two (segregated) Virginias Mann observed growing up; the two Virginia Carters that represent Mann’s own understanding of Virginia Carter’s social position and relation to Mann herself.
© Sally Mann. The Two Virginias #4, 1991 . Gelatin silver print. Collection of the Estée Lauder Companies Inc.
The boldest curatorial choice in A Thousand Crossings comes from “Men,” the display of Mann’s images of Black men (editors note: these images are unfortunately unavailable to reproduce here for press purposes so you’ll have to see the exhibition if you’d like to see them). According to one of the labels in this section, Mann realized that because she had grown up in a segregated society, she “never really saw, never really knew” the Black men around her--they had merely been part of the landscape of her world. 

As a result, the images Mann created of these men are deeply individualized, almost monumental, and cannily juxtaposed with tintypes of Mann’s photographs of Blackwater River, which was used by enslaved people to escape to freedom. The label further describes how Mann was inspired by dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, who spoke about the Black body as a site of objectification that is “bought and sold.”

There’s a big risk here in how A Thousand Crossings exhibits these works. The inclusion of historically-relevant landscapes among these portraits is a nod to how Mann personally struggled to remove an entire category of humanity from the mere background of her own life. And yet these images are deeply, incredibly vulnerable, but also centered on the very same body that Bill T. Jones saw as something consumable, something bought and sold, meaning that the possibility for Mann to objectify or fetishize the differences in their bodies was also high. Both the Black men in her world, and the painful history of the Southern landscape, were aspects of Mann’s reality that she had to actively focus on, to not take for granted, to choose to see.