Sally Mann’s images lit my fire for photography. I was 13 years old when I first saw one of her photographs—Candy Cigarette, an image of her daughter Jessie balancing a fake cigarette in one hand—and I felt an incredible kinship with this girl I’d never met. I was a combative, tremulous adolescent, and looking at Mann’s photograph was the first time I recognized myself in another.
A major exhibition on Mann’s work, titled A Thousand Crossings, is currently on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in the US, fresh off a run at the National Gallery of Art in the nation’s capital. The exhibition includes more than 100 of Mann’s photographs, many of which have never been exhibited or published. Delving into family, memory, ephemerality, and tragedy (both personal and national), the show is a broad and powerful consideration of Mann’s work that highlights its importance and relevance in our current socio-political climate.
I was thrilled to have the chance to sit down with Sarah Kennel, one of the exhibition’s curators, for a generous conversation about the important contemporary resonance of Mann’s new work, her fascination with death, and much more.
LensCulture: I was 13 when I first came across Sally’s photography, and I remember having an intense emotional reaction to her images. When I talk about her work, I’m always struck by how it’s powerful for people across demographics—whether social or political. Why do you think her work is affecting for such a diverse range of people?
Sarah Kennel: I can see how Candy Cigarette would affect you, if you looked at it when you were 13. There’s something very powerful and authentic about those pictures even though Sally crafted them so carefully.
That’s what’s so brilliant about those photographs. At its core, art is about using craft to convey something that feels very powerful and authentic about our human experience.
LC: Her work is an interesting combination of emotion and intellect—as in, the images seem candid, but I know she also orchestrated a lot of the scenes in her most popular images.
SK: Exactly. There’s actually a lot of conceptual rigor as well as technical mastery that goes into the work. You don’t look at it and think, “This is an idea.” You experience it, right?
I think that Sally is an artist who isn’t afraid to actually address the big things. Most people are not going to take on every angle of big themes like death or childhood, and yet Sally manages to do it in a way that doesn’t seem artificial or saccharine. All of it is treated in a serious way—it’s professional, for lack of a better word. Not sterile, but she’s looking at these subjects as a professional.
The other thing that you can really detect in the work is the artist’s grace and investment in the project and how much of it comes from her own emotional experience. It’s very powerful in that way. There’s also something about the quality of the pictures she makes—they’re very materially engaging. They engage our emotions and our senses as well as our mind.
LC: I love that you say her work isn’t “saccharine.” People always think of childhood as being a time of freedom, happiness, naiveté—I was completely aware of that trope in high school, and I remember thinking, “That’s not how I feel!”
SK: I think in commercial culture, photography has been used to reinforce notions of childhood and the happy family. This is also why when Immediate Family came out it was so difficult and controversial and powerful. I think it upset people in part because it was so compelling and alluring. As in, “I shouldn’t be as drawn to this as I am,” because it’s not what we want to think about childhood.
It’s confusing; there’s shame and anger and danger and a sort of incipient sensuality—which is not the same as sexuality—in this work. But because those things are such complicated issues in our culture, people don’t want to look.
LC: That reminds me of one of her photographs in particular—The Alligator’s Approach. For me, Sally’s work gets into a place of fear, and that’s part of why people were so uncomfortable with it when it first came out. That image speaks to the fear you have as a parent—you’re always looking around for the dangers you can’t anticipate.
SK: Absolutely, and that picture is such an insight into the family work. On the one hand, there’s the humor. It’s called The Alligator’s Approach, but it takes a while to even see the alligator. We’re thinking, “Where is it, where is it?” and then you find it and realize it’s plastic.
She’s also using that sense of fear in contrast to the Arcadian image: this lyrical place, this little girl who’s dozing off—and yet, there’s a threat that’s lurking. She’s definitely staging that primal fear that parents have, but she’s also showing us both the child’s experience and the adult’s experience at the same time.
That’s what, I think, is so compelling about some of these pictures: you get both. That’s why it felt authentic to you at 13, but maybe it’s also why it feels authentic to you as an adult.
LC: Yes. Changing tacks, I just interviewed someone yesterday about a photojournalistic project, and they said that they feel their work is important because it “brings the conflict to a larger audience.” I don’t want you to feel that you need to simplify it, but why would you say that Sally’s work is important on a cultural scale?
SK: It’s a good question, and one we dealt with directly when we curated the show. To boil it down, I think that she uses a very personal voice to show Americans the way in which our intimate experience of the world is connected to our history as Americans. The show very deliberately progresses from intimate family works, to the landscapes she photographed of Civil War battlefields, to more recent work about race relations. So she’s using the personal to address wider concerns about where we live and about issues of race. None of it is separate, and it’s messy—it’s messy in her work, but it’s also messy in our culture.
I would say that her work interweaves the personal and national, in a way. That’s why it’s important in this moment. We’re living in a moment of political correctness and terrible political incorrectness, right? We’re a polarized society, particularly around issues of race and history. When we were finalizing the catalogue, Charlottesville, Virginia removed a Confederate statue, sparking violent Alt-Right demonstrations. This history is alive and well. We’re living it. And I think Sally’s work is important in that it compels you to look beyond the surface, to reflect on someone else’s experience and then reflect on your own.
And then I think in terms of photography, she just shows you what you can do with the medium. You can create worlds and experiences.
LC: In the exhibition, how did you reconcile all of the different (and important) facets in her work? Family, history, culture, race…
SK: When we conceived the show, we were really thinking about one theme that linked a lot of her work and is a driving force in her identity as an artist and as a person—her relationship to the South.
She has explored this relationship in different ways. We wanted to start with the family works because they’ve been talked about a lot in terms of culture wars or her own documentary photography, but they’re also so much about place. We selected photos that we felt set the stage and led to her more recent work, which focuses more directly on the landscape.
Sally writes about how as her kids got older, they got smaller as the landscapes got bigger. Once she started focusing on the landscape, the work started to look at the history of the land she was photographing. This led her to the battlefields, and that led her to death. In the exhibition, we end on death, which is actually cheerier than it sounds!
But the most recent work is, I think, the most ambitious in a way, because she’s weaving together different histories of her life and the lives of others in the South. That section is called “Abide with Me,” and it includes photographs of churches; photographs of Virginia Carter, the woman who essentially raised her; and photos of young African-American men. A lot of this work came from a period when she was reflecting on her own life—not her photographic past, but her personal past, particularly what it meant to grow up as a privileged (she would say “clueless”) white girl in the South.
LC: And how did you tie her family into that narrative?
SK: We structured the show so that it would start and end with the family—we wanted you to feel like you went on a journey. You go back to the same place you started, but it’s like stepping into a river: you might be in the same place on the riverbank, but it’s different water. We hope that people will go through the show and experience some of the same things Sally experienced; that they will grow and start to acknowledge the way our lives are intertwined like Sally has, and that they will go along with Sally in her development as an artist.
LC: That’s a beautiful image. I’m curious about something you said a moment ago: that Sally spent a lot of time looking back at her old work, and how that informs the works she’s making now. Can you be more specific?
SK: She was looking back at her experiences as a young woman. Sally has written about how when she was young, one of the people she was closest to, Virginia Carter, was a poor, uneducated African-American woman in Virginia whose opportunities were limited by structural racism—and yet, she was also such a powerful and even moral force shaping Sally’s childhood. The gap between the intimacy of Sally’s experience and her belated realization of how prescribed Gee-Gee’s life was really shocked her. She wrote very movingly about the construction of social relations in the South and how much it defined her worldview.
The other work that she did—the landscapes, the battlefields—all of it ties into her conception of place as being saturated with history. With the battlefields, it was Civil War history, which is also, of course, the history of slavery. She photographed the Great Dismal Swamp and African American churches in the South. I think she was trying to conjure the presence of the past in her photos—the vibrations, the experiences. It’s all carefully thought out. The Swamp was an area that was famous for being a refuge for fugitive slaves. it had connotations of danger and desperation, but also sanctuary. As for the churches, in Virginia, before the Civil War, African Americans couldn’t congregate without the presence of a white minister—and for Sally, they also represented places that you could drive by without thinking of them as an integral piece of history. Whose history? What happened here? I think these pictures try to acknowledge that history from her perspective.
LC: Grappling with race relations in America—it’s a tricky subject. I’m a white woman asking you questions about these images, she’s a white woman making photographs of young black men…
SK: Yes, and we’re aware of that. Here she is, a white artist, making complicated pictures about race in the middle of this very charged political climate. People are not entirely sure what she’s doing or what her intentions are, so she’s making herself vulnerable. Some people have said, “Oh, these images are so timely,” but I think it’s white blindness to a lot of these issues that allows us to think that way. It’s only recently that this prejudice has been made very public and very visible, but it has existed forever. I think Sally sensed those tensions early on.
LC: Looking at her photographs of the battlefields, I find myself thinking, “This photograph could’ve been taken yesterday or 200 years ago.” She ties the present to the past; the sins, prejudices, and horrors of our past are also here in the present.
SK: Exactly. They’re still with us. I think that’s what I have the greatest respect for in her work—the requirements Sally places on the viewer to both understand what they’re seeing, visually, and then to conceptualize it.
LC: Can you tell me about a couple of works that you find particularly powerful?
SK: People ask me if I have a favorite work or body of works, and I can’t decide. It’s like someone asking about your favorite child—you love your kids for their different personalities.
Sally makes a lot of alluring and beautiful work, but as soon as you get lulled into that beauty, she’ll hit you with a hard and difficult picture. Those are the ones I find myself drawn to. We recently acquired an image of the riverbank where Emmett Till’s body was recovered, and the violence in that image is hard to look at, but it was a critical image to include in this show. The process she used for that image is important, too. It’s very detail-oriented. She’s transforming the small accidents in the process into metaphors for experience.
The images require you to look slowly.
LC: The show includes another photograph of the bridge where Till was killed. In the middle, there’s a drip—calling it an imperfection feels wrong, because the inclusion is certainly intentional…
SK: Sally likes to talk about the “angel of uncertainty.” In this image in particular, if you don’t know the history, you look at a gorgeous photograph with a strange flaw. Once you know the history, you go back and forth. We could say it “evokes a teardrop,” but it’s also a rift. In the show, we hang it near a picture of the riverbank with a huge gash in it, so they become symbols of violence. The scar on the photograph is like the scar on the land, which is a scar on our national conscience.
LC: I thought a lot about death as I wrote these questions, because to me, even her photos of her family include elements of risk, danger, death…the world she creates is so solid and yet so ephemeral. There’s an inevitability to them that breaks my heart.
SK: Heartbreaking is definitely a word that comes to mind. I think her strongest pictures are prophetic—she’s seeing the future already. There’s a deep sadness to that. As a parent, your kid might be in the full flush of being eight, but already you’re thinking about that time when they leave you, where they aren’t in your life every day. It’s a sense of time passing, and Sally draws that out more to the inevitability of death. You can say that’s a Southern thing, or that’s a Sally thing, or a photography thing (if you want to talk about art), but I think it’s a key part of those pictures. She plays with time and inevitability in a deliberate way, and that’s why her images are so emotional.
LC: In what way is it a “Sally thing?”
SK: Sally would say that she’s always been fascinated with death in a clinical way, but she’s also experienced terrible traumas. She’s processed those losses by making pictures.
LC: I found an incredible quote by her where she says, “I had a fascination with death. It’s the sculptor of the ravishing landscape, the terrible mother, the damp creator of life by whom we are one day devoured.”
SK: I love that quote too. I wrote my essay for the show catalogue on the family pictures, and I argue that the part we find disturbing about the images is not their depiction of children, but actually the image of motherhood.
We think of mothers as having one primary job: protecting their children. Some people argued that Sally was exposing her children to risk. But in reality, she was exposing the risk itself. She exposed death as a part of life, and that’s taboo. It’s counter to the idea of what a mother is, of what a mother should be in relation to her children. Mothers protect, mothers prevent harm from coming to their children. But here she’s saying, “I can’t do that.” Mothers are life-giving, but also…death is a woman. What are the implications of that?
—Sarah Kennel interviewed by Coralie Kraft
You can see A Thousand Crossings at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts until September 23, 2018. The show will stop at several international institutions in the next two years: it will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from November 20, 2018-February 10, 2019; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from March 3-May 27, 2019; the Jeu de Paume, Paris, from June 17-September 22, 2019, and finally the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from October 19, 2019-January 12, 2020.