For more than forty years, Sally Mann (born 1951) has been taking hauntingly beautiful experimental photographs that explore the essential themes of existence: memory, desire, mortality, family, and nature’s overwhelming indifference towards mankind. What gives unity to this vast corpus of portraits, still lifes, landscapes and miscellaneous studies is that it is the product of one place, the southern United States.
Sally Mann was born in Lexington, Virginia. Many years ago she wrote about what it means to live in the South; drawing on a deep love for that area and a profound awareness of its complex historical heritage, she raised bold, thought-provoking questions — about history, identity, race and religion — that went beyond geographical and national boundaries. This exhibition is the first major retrospective of the eminent artist’s work; it examines her relationship with her native region and how it has shaped her work.
The retrospective is arranged in five parts and features many previously unknown or unpublished works. It is both an overview of four decades of the artist’s work and a thoughtful analysis of how the legacy of the South — at once, homeland and cemetery, refuge and battlefield — is reflected in her work as a powerful and disturbing force that continues to shape the identity and the reality of an entire country.
The exhibition opens with works from the 1980s, when Sally Mann began photographing her three children as they went about the business of being children in the family’s summer residence in Lexington. The images convey a sensual beauty, with hints of violence, sexuality and distress, refuting the traditional clichés of childhood, and evoking a preference for disturbing visions.
The exhibition continues with photographs of suffocating swampland, fields and dilapidated houses that Sally Mann discovered while travelling through Virginia, Georgia and Mississippi. From her search for what she calls “the radical light of the American South,” the images she brought back from Virginia look like the visions of a sleepwalker, while the photos from Georgia and Mississippi have an austere, desolate quality. In these strangely static photographs, as well as those in the third section, devoted to the battlefields of the Civil War, Sally Mann opted for much larger formats and used old lenses and the old, 19th century, wet collodion plate process. By using early techniques, she has obtained a wide range of photographic effects, including flare (parasitic spots of light), haze, streaks and blurring that make the South a place of memory, defeat, ruin and rebirth.
The fourth section is an exploration, in four series, of the racial landscape of Virginia. Between 2006 and 2015, Sally Mann produced a series of tintypes on the Great Dismal Swamp and the surrounding waterways in south-eastern Virginia. Before the Civil War, this marshland was a refuge for large numbers of runaway slaves. For these images, Mann used the tintype process — a collodion emulsion on a metal sheet — to create a liquid-looking surface that reflects the local geography, which is indissociable from its history of slavery. In parallel with this, Sally Mann has made photographs of small 19th-century African-American churches near her home in Lexington. These images are punctuated with portraits of Virginia “Gee-Gee” Carter, the black woman who worked for the artist’s parents for fifty years and helped to raise Mann. The section is rounded off with a set of large-format portraits of black men, printed from collodion negatives.
In the final section, the exhibition comes back to where it started; the focus is on Sally Mann and her family and deals with mortality and the passage of time. The photographer’s relentless fascination with the process of decay is evident in a series of ghostly portraits of her children and of intimate photographs depicting in detail the physical changes in her husband who suffers from a degenerative illness. The exhibition ends with an astonishing series of self-portraits taken the day after a terrible riding accident.