National Gallery of Art/ Peabody Essex Museum/Abrams, 331 pp., $55.00
The work of a photographer cannot help but be autobiographical. Every image produced has been seen by the photographer’s eye and transmitted, by way of the photographer’s hand, to the film, plate, or digital apparatus that is the prosthesis of memory. But some work is more personal than other work. The act of witness performed by a photojournalist, who aims for clarity and compression, is different from that of the street photographer, who engages in a more subjective way of seeing. And both of those differ considerably from the task of photographers who are out to record the circumstances of their own intimate lives. The history of the medium is sparsely dotted with these: photographers who documented their childhood (Jacques-Henri Lartigue), youth (Nan Goldin, Larry Clark), parenthood (Nicholas Nixon), middle age with aging parents (Mitch Epstein, Larry Sultan), and even their own physical decline (Hannah Wilke, John Coplans). Generally, the autobiographical impulse is confined to an episode in a career otherwise devoted to other matters. There are not many photographers who, like Sally Mann, have made their life and the circumstances surrounding it the central focus of their work.
But that is not to say that Mann’s work is a diary or a chronicle or a succession of mirrors. Her scope is concentric, in widening rings, beginning with her nuclear family and extending outward to the land they inhabit, the region surrounding it, the larger territory surrounding that, and the long, tangled, bitter, complicated history that underlies all of it. Those elements are not distinct from one another, but intermingled: the small-scale with the large, the actual with the forgotten, the intimate with the geopolitical, the twenty-first century with the nineteenth, the living with the dead, portraits with landscapes. Her earlier books and shows generally focused on one or two of these, but the connections have become more visible with every succeeding project, in particular her memoir, Hold Still (2015). The current survey exhibition of her work, “Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings,” organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Peabody Essex Museum, makes their continuity inescapable, blending them together in streams running from room to room and chapter to chapter to form a river.
That metaphor is not idly chosen. As the title suggests, many rivers figure in her photographs, above all the Maury, which runs by her family’s farm in Lexington, Virginia, and becomes almost a character in the pictures she took of her children growing up. Those pictures, collected in Immediate Family (1992), were what brought her work to the attention of the wider world. Mann photographed her children, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia, when their ages were in the single digits, in an endless summer idyll in the privacy of the protective curving banks of the Maury, wearing few or no clothes and frequently smeared with mud or…
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