‘A Thousand Crossings’ Chronicles Life of Photographic Artist

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/07/21/a-thousand-crossings-chronicles-life-of-photographic-artist/

A Thousand Crossings is a visual folk-opera rooted in American experience but of international relevance. Composed by 67-year-old photographer Sally Mann of Lexington, Virginia, this presentation of 115 photographs captures many of the soulful notes heard throughout George and Ira Gershwin’s lullaby Summertime from the melodramatic play Porgy and Bess. Much like the theme of the musical score, Mann’s photographs snapshot the South. Distinctly atmospheric, their tonal rhythms defy boundaries and successfully echo the universality of the human condition.

Considered one of the nation’s most influential and distinguished photographers, Mann juxtaposes discordant configurations of spiritual innocence with physical cruelties. Unorthodox processing techniques accentuate her observations of love, religious refuge, and loss in an expressive collection of evolving thought. Within the work, Mann recognizes photographic imperfections as perfections of the composition’s deeper psychological thesis that bridges beauty and brutality.

Forty years in the making, A Thousand Crossings is a composite of mostly black-and-white stills. The moving illusions allude to humanity as it was, as it is, and as it may be.  Five Stanzas – “Family,” “The Land,” “Last Measure,” “Abide with Me,” and “What Remains,” — organize Mann’s full-circle dissertation on life. Metaphorically they underscore emotional, physical, and spiritual transitions, ambitiously linking personal chronologies with national history.

“Family” begins the exhibition by confronting society’s frequently romanticized notion of childhood. In the 1980s, with the cooperation of her three young children (Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia), Mann reframed the time of bucolic innocence to include a chorus of its rocky challenges. Staged on the family homestead, the poetry of the pictures ties the beginning of life to traditions, trials and the inevitability of transition.

Many of Mann’s 1990s studies link the spirit of Antebellum and Civil War landscapes to vestiges of once-beautiful secular and religious sanctuaries. Personifying the history of land left scarred by racist ideologies and segregation, Mann annexes the polarities between her youthful entitlements and her adult consciousness in a photo thesis called “Abide With Me.”

Co-opting the prayerful hymn’s title, Mann focuses on the paradoxically loving relationship she shared with her primary caretaker, Virginia Carter. Gee-Gee, as she was known, was an African-American woman, the granddaughter of a former slave, who Sally referred to as “the best mother a child could want.” 

Mann was raised by parents who did not practice religion; she credits Gee-Gee with her vivid memories of church life: “When the entire congregation was in full throat I felt as if a great wave had picked me up and was rolling over me. I went with it tumbling like a pale piece of ocean glass, washing up outside the heavy doors at the end of the service. Blinking in the sudden sunshine of Main Street, I reached for Gee-Gee’s hand.” “Abide With Me” looks back at Sally Mann’s life and times with Virginia Carter and contemplates how the mothering soul sacrificed the needs of her own six children to raise her. With the cooperation of Gee-Gee’s adult children, Mann traces the repository of racial injustices imposed on their mother’s life of abiding love and faith.

Sally Mann photos reproduced here with permission.

In the 2000s portion Mann revisits the theme of family in “What Remains.” Intensely personal, this collection of portraits includes imagery of the artist, her husband, and the face of one of her children.  Inspired by Greek mythology and the Bible, as well as works by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Eudora Welty, the ambrotype series recognizes and dignifies states of aging, disability, and pain.  

Abstract self-portraits convey physical damage through age and accident. In contrast, tender photographs of Sally’s husband Larry suffering from advancing muscular dystrophy reveal the contorted disintegration of his body. Sarah Kennel, co-curator of this exhibit, said “These pictures convey the extraordinary intimacy between the couple and an imperishable bond nurtured by nearly fifty years of marriage.” 


“Nothing matters but the quality of the affection — in the end — that has carved the trace in the mind; dove sea memorial” -Ezra Pound “Canto LXXVII,” The Pisan Cantos, 1948

From the collection of Sir Elton John, A Thousand Crossings concludes with a study on mortality. In a haunting triptych, Mann photographs the adult face of one of her daughters to re-create the nineteenth-century tradition of post-mortem photography, emulating a time when cameras sought to capture the final likeness of a loved one before death fully claimed the person’s spirit. 

(Although not mentioned in the exhibit, the Mann family lost their son Emmett in June 2016 after suffering from schizophrenia for much of his lifetime. Emmett was educated at John Dewey Academy in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.)

On Wednesday, July 18, former president of Harvard University and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust joined Mrs. Mann at the Peabody Essex Museum in a conversation called “Of Common Country.” Both of natives of Virginia and have reflected growing up in the South influenced their careers, which continue to influence American society and the world.

Sally Mann worked closely with the The National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem to organize the photographs of A Thousand Crossings, many of which have never been exhibited or published before. The National Gallery was the first venue for the presentation A Thousand Crossings. The exhibit is on view now through Sunday, September 23 in the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Sarah Kennel, co-curator of ‘A Thousand Crossings’ exhibition of photographs by Sally Mann,speaks beneath bowsprits at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Photo by Diane Kilgore.

The collection will continue to tour at the following destinations:

1.  Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
2.  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
3.  Jeu de Paume, Paris
4.  High Museum of Art, Atlanta

With others, the exhibition is made possible by an important contribution from Carolyn and Peter Lynch and the Lynch Foundation. 

Carolyn Lynch died October 1, 2015 at the age of 69. 

For details : PEM.org or call 978-745-9500