Southern Discomfort: The Photographs of Sally Mann

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings
at Getty Center, Los Angeles (through February 10, 2019)
Reviewed by Nancy Kay Turner

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.

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Easter Dress, 1986, gelatin silver print, Patricia and David Schulte
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The Ditch, 1987, gelatin silver print, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Sally Mann and Edwynn Houk Gallery

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.

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Bean’s Bottom, 1991, silver dye bleach print, Private collection
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Bloody Nose, 1991, silver dye bleach print, Private collection

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. . .

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