Sally Mann’s family includes her camera. Her narrative includes the history of the South. Her images include the techniques used to make them.
“A Thousand Crossings,” a darkly accessible exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum showing more than one hundred photographs, not only captures images, but also captures the effort involved in making those images.
The exhibition can be somber, and deeply allusive. Mann uses the landscape of American South as her palette, and applies her family, and historical allusions, liberally. Broken into five major sections, “A Thousand Crossings” forms a timeline of Mann’s work, taking her children from youth into young adulthood, her husband and herself into middle age and beyond.
In the exhibition’s first section, Family—most of the work dating from the 1980s—Mann (b. 1951) creates staged images of her children in the family’s rural Virginia home. All are imaginative; some are unsettling.
There’s lots of naked kids, mostly in summertime mode: swimming holes, blowing bubbles, looking scruffy with collected oddities, playing alongside the family pickup. Some are melodramatically posed: her son with a gushing bloody nose (without the label you’d think he was seriously wounded); three kids on a picnic blanket, with a brush fire roaring too closely; another son lying in a drainage ditch, looking like the victim of a hate crime.
The photographs rarely seem pornographic, but certainly at lurk at the border. They can be lurid, but honest, representing simultaneously the ease at which a rural family embraces its clothes-free environment, and the resulting shock when that nakedness meets up with public viewing. In some ways they represent a mother’s love for her clan—an honest love, definitely not nostalgic.
In a section of photographs called The Land, Mann shoots the ruined South. Gauzy landscapes, almost all features erased or indistinguishable, imply a troubled story. Using older tools, including antique lenses and collodion wet plate process, Mann leaves many of the equipment’s shortcomings in her prints as part of the aesthetic. Drips, burn spots, incomplete borders—all add to the notion of distress.
This notion, and the techniques exploring it, delve into even darker textures in Last Measure. A collection of abstract landscapes—the labels tell us they are historic Civil War battlegrounds—creates shudders of a holocaust.
Race—always a fraught and present issue for Southern artists—fills the photographs in Abide with Me. This work dates from the early 2000s, and focuses—or un-focuses—on blurry shots of men. Nostalgic photographs of a family housekeeper—Virginia “Gee Gee” Carter—are also used, to look back at the moments of racism in Mann’s own upbringing, She writes about herself most presciently in the exhibition catalog: “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.” The photographs in this section carry all those incongruous emotions at once.
What Remains, the final section of this marvelously displayed retrospective, seems unspeakably sad. Farewell photographs of her children—grown too old to be props—are challenging closeups: only an eye, or some small features.
Mann’s multi-frame self-portrait seems ghostly. Images of her husband, exploring the encroachments of muscular dystrophy on his vigorous body, are never maudlin, but darkly anxious. As before, faults in photographic and printing technique work their way into the aesthetic, creating a certain distance.
The gallery is beautifully blocked out for viewing these works, with ample space for viewers to absorb Mann’s craft. “Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings” runs through Sept. 23 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. For more information visit www.pem.org or call 978-745-9500.