Sally Mann’s A Thousand Crossings, now on view at the National Gallery of Art, is the first major international exhibition for the artist, who is both living and regionally based. It’s also a great choice for March, a month dedicated to Women, and the final stretch of the wait for spring, when we can return to the outside and let it embrace us. It’s the time of year when time itself feels most visible: the changing bloom on the trees, the shedding of layer we hid ourselves under.
The passing of time is something Mann is acutely aware of. It has affected her family, but it has also affected the land which shaped her. The South is not the same as it was when she was a little girl, not the same even when her little girls were little girls. She wrote, “Even among the competitive crowd of southern states, Virginia stands out in its obsession with the past. . . . Physically, the reminders are everywhere.”
If you are familiar with Mann, chances are you know her through two things: work that felt so intimate you almost wanted to look away. Namely I am referring to the portraits of her family, especially her three children and her memoir (with photographs) Hold Still, which was a National Book Award finalist a couple of years ago.
In short, Mann is best known for work that holds the beholder unflinchingly close to herself.
Fittingly, A Thousand Crossings is a true story, a journey of a woman’s life, in a space and time and circumstances she didn’t choose, but chose to embrace. The fact that we are invited in, feels like a privilege.
The exhibition is separated into five sections (Family, The Land, Last Measure, Abide with Me, and What Remains) that build up, with many works previously unseen by the public, the microcosms of Mann’s love for her world, no matter how fraught it is.
A lifelong resident of Lexington, Mann is not afraid to face the issues that are imprinted on her beloved Virginia: history, identity, race, and religion.
Her family opens the show, and the photographs of her husband Larry, and children Virginia, Emmett and Jessie set the stage for all that is to come. These, closest to the hearth and heart images, taken in the 80s and early 90s, are heart-stoppingly beautiful and defiant. The images were famously controversial for the freedom exhibited by its underage subjects, as they ran and played and sulked, sometimes naked, for their mother’s camera. In Hold Still, Mann wrote that her family pictures — “could not be completely understood outside the context of this farm”. The Land section that continues in the next room, provides some of that context, and then expanding on it all the way to Mississippi and Louisiana.
The time that came after the photos in the Family section makes them feel even more poignant now, and us, and the viewer more connected to the Manns. Larry, who in that first sequence is referred to as the family anchor (“Mom sets the stage, but Dad is the stage”), suffers from muscular dystrophy is the heartbreaking subject of What Remains. Virginia, her daughter, and Virginia, the African American housemaid that raised both Mann and her children, are a joint subject of a sequence on youth and old age, that will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who was raised, in part, by someone in the twilight of their own life.
And those timeless, provocative shots of her children together – Mann, revisited these most recently in 2016 with a solo show at the Gagosian, after Emmet, her eldest, took his life at 36.
It is impossible not to be moved.
Mann’s approach is almost painterly – the prints are a choice she made because “there is nothing more beautiful that a silver gelatin print” – and she relishes the textures, the small imperfections, the labor that goes into these moments as she is committing them to eternity. She only shoots the people and places she loves, even when they are hard to bear.
Because, that’s what true love is. Difficult, beautiful, challenging, rewarding, imperfect, joyful, heartbreaking, but also ALL YOURS.
Don’t miss this show.
A Thousand Crossings is on display now through May 28, at the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. More details on the exhibition and programs surrounding it are here.