Celebrated American photographer Sally Mann’s hypnotic and provocative work is getting a long-overdue exhibition at the High Museum of Art from Oct. 19 to Feb. 2. “A Thousand Crossings” culls a variety of photos from her body of often controversial work to present an overview of a life behind the camera.
Taking over three floors of the Anne Cox Chambers’ wing of the High, “A Thousand Crossings” is filled with more than 100 of Mann’s images starting with “The Family,” the photos of her often nude children that dropped like a bomb in the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. While the shock value of the photographs is gone, the images remain unsettling in their composition. Are Mann’s young daughters simply playing with mom’s makeup or is the older sister attempting to cover up the younger’s black eye in “Gorjus”? Are her children in mortal danger as they observe a massive fire in the near-distance in “The Picnic”? Is her husband simply cradling his sleeping daughter or checking her neck for a pulse in “Last Light”? Are a woman’s discarded shoes, a shopping cart and life-preserver a premonition of the future causing the anxious look on her daughter’s face in “Bubbles”? The photos beg those questions and more, but the viewer is left to apply their own explanation, and it’s this lack of backstory that makes them indelible.
Mann’s keen eye for landscapes was already evident in the early photos of her family, but when she set out to photograph famous Civil War battlefields in the South, the dark, moody fields and forests proved to be even more unsettling. Using the 19th century “wet plate” method, these photographs are filled with dust, debris and irregularities caused by the necessity to process onsite and the instability of the toxic collodion emulsion used to expose the image. Battlefields at Antietam, Cold Harbor and Chancellorsville are forbidding places full of shadowy trees and in one, traces of dust appear as bullets streaking across a forest clearing. In another, there is such an absence of light that the landscape nearly becomes the negative image and even the sun is a black swirl on the horizon.
In her more recent work, Mann meditates on race by photographing rural African American churches near her native Lexington, VA. Using high-contrast film and printed on expired photo paper that creates an unpredictable range of color and texture, the churches – even those long abandoned and being consumed by nature – still have vibrancy. Mann’s portraits of black men taken in the mid-to-late 2000s feel disorientingly like they were made 100 years earlier. They are so evocative in pose that one cannot help but think of the cruelties visited on black men during the era of slavery and Jim Crow in the South.
The exhibit returns to Mann’s children – now adults – and the poignant photos of her husband, Larry, and his struggle with late-onset muscular dystrophy. The faces of her children almost appear as funeral masks in oversized close-up portraits, while “Ponder Heart,” a portrait of Larry’s back with his hand resting on his shoulder, is devastating in its intimacy and vulnerability.
If you’re looking for a second, more concentrated dose of Mann’s work, check out “Remembered Light and Landscapes” at Jackson Fine Art in Buckhead through Dec. 21. This smaller exhibition focuses on Mann’s images of fellow artist Cy Twombly’s studio along with more Southern landscapes, including a haunting image of Fort Pulaski on Georgia’s coast.
Mann’s prowess as visual storyteller not only puts her in the company of the greatest photographers the medium has ever seen, but also squarely in the ranks of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner for her unflinching and unvarnished observations of the South and its people. “A Thousand Crossings” is a journey that will remain with you long after you’ve left the High. Go.