The Sally Mann retrospective “A Thousand Crossings” at the J. Paul Getty Museum is one of those exhibitions in which the images, curation and subtext deliver something deeper than just pretty pictures. The artist’s fine art photographs—of her family, Southern landscapes, swamps, black men, her childhood caregiver, churches, battlefields and her own body—are the finest examples of the medium you’ll find in the country, but they’re more than the sum of their perfection. As a chronicler of our shared trauma, she’s an artist presenting a vision of a hurt world within the family and without. Her work is bold, unflinching stuff, even decades after they’ve been taken, and the Getty is the only place on the West Coast to see this show on its tour.
It opens with Mann’s most contentious work: images of her three preteen children, Emmett, Jessie and Virginia. In the ’80s, the Religious Right’s anti-art slash and burn saw pornography in every piece of art it wanted unfunded or banned. Mann’s work isn’t porn, but her willingness to remove the fantasy trappings of what we perceive as childhood, capturing her children in all of the body fluids, nudity and potential disaster that it entails, quickly brought her work to the public’s eye. Some of the photos are subtly staged to make statements, others caught spontaneously, but the children are always magical, glowing, beautiful without measure, with Mann wearing both her adoration and parental anxiety on her sleeve. There’s a startling picture of her son, red gouts of blood splashed on his face, hands and naked chest (Bloody Nose); Last Light is an eerie image of her youngest daughter limp in her husband’s lap, eyes half-closed, his fingers at her throat as if he’s checking for a pulse; another, The Alligators Approach, features the same little girl in a lawn chair, an inflatable toy alligator looking as if it’s barreling up the riverbank toward her. Most of the time, the children look as if they enjoy posing; it’s clear they’re often willing participants who are in on the game.
Mann moved on from her children to a series of experimental landscapes, eschewing Ansel Adams’ bright romantic idealization of nature to something dark and oppressive. Working from the idea that a land takes on the characteristics of its people, her sumptuous Southern landscapes are muted, smeared black, as if taken during an eternal eclipse. She gives obstacles to her large-format cameras—primarily their ability to create larger, clearer prints—by using antique lenses and film stocks, even diatomaceous earth, to muddy the visual waters and force a reckoning with the region’s ugly racial history. Whether documenting the bridge that Emmett Till’s battered body was dumped from [Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie)]; the ruins of plantations; or numerous battlefields in Antietam, Cold Harbor and Fredericksburg (among others), Mann asks us to see her own conflicted feelings, with images often so dark we’re intentionally unable to make out the details, just the shadows of the past. When the photograph includes the occasional fog, it’s as if the artist were wishing for it to disappear.
The section whose title, “Abide By Me,” was taken from a 19th-century hymn is focused almost entirely on representations of black people and Mann’s history with them. Her tender portraits of Virginia, the woman who was her childhood caretaker, playing with the daughter Mann named after her offers a loving contrast of young alabaster white and worn black skin, bruised and calloused feet opposite tiny perfect ones pressed against her calves (The Two Virginias #3). Mann’s portraits of black men, seen in profile, lying on their side, the edges blackened and scarred by chemicals and imperfections, feel as though she has captured ghosts appearing from the past. Her frightening dark tintypes of the swamps that fugitive slaves hid out in suggest terror and menace, not refuge, despite their beauty; her images of bright clapboard Baptist and Methodist church fronts resemble haunted houses more than safe houses.
An artist friend asked me where the love was in the final section, “What Remains.” I told her I could see it everywhere, but there’s also a wistfulness that it seems to be coming to an end. She is with her children once again, though the closeups of their adult faces are closer to fading memories. Documenting her husband’s battle with multiple sclerosis in piecemeal fashion, her shots are different areas of his ailing body—thin, wasted limbs, a floppy hand—as if the body doesn’t fall apart all at once, but in an inconvenient here and there. The heaviness of the camera Mann uses works as a symbol of the history that any person who has loved someone carries: accompanying the joyful decision to have a family in the first place is the possibility of losing that family to accident, malice or disease. Mann tells us that what remains in the end is love and the memories of that love.
“Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings” at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Los Angeles, (310) 440-7330; www.getty.edu/museum/. Open Sun. & Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Feb. 10. Free; parking, $10-$15.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.