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“Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted,” Emily Dickinson writes in a letter to her confidant Thomas Wentworth Higginson. It is a laconic thought: clear as a bell in its expression, troubled as a knot in its concept. Who does the haunting? For some—Dickinson would surely count herself among them—nature bears the touch of its creation and is haunted by the leftover presence of the spirit that created it. But it is also part of Dickinson’s thought that we haunt nature; we pass through it, as insubstantial to it as it is implacable to us. What does the shift from “is” to “tries” signify? Art creates, but does so derivatively. It strives to conjure forth worlds within the world, worlds haunted by the human creative impulse and its products. These are not, however, real worlds; they cannot be truly haunted. Nonetheless, the way we shamble around the house of nature, the way we haunt it, is by trying to make sense of it, our imagined hauntings in hand.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, at the National Gallery, presents a selection of the photographer’s work from the last thirty years. In a word: the show is magisterial, bringing together many of the most important works of an artist of the first rank at the height of her powers. The cocurators, Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel, must be congratulated for their impeccable sense of logic and flow. The catalogue they have edited is extensive, its essays thoughtful, and the reproduction of images splendid.
The show is divided into five sections apportioned over four ample rooms, with fifth and sixth rooms devoted to video interviews. Three recent photographs of dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones, one of the interviewees, provide a coda to the exhibition. Official titles aside, the show strikes me as a triptych. The center is held by landscapes, flanked by photographs of Mann’s immediate family, on the one side, and what I would call her “extended family,” on the other.
The centrality of the landscapes is signaled by positioning Deep South, Untitled (Fontainebleau) just outside the gallery entrance. It is hung at a height that requires most to look up slightly. The effect is well judged; when one moves one’s head to see a thing, part of the experience of seeing is embedded in that movement: the emergence into a scene. A distant clearing is visible past a low-hanging mesh formed by the boughs of two live oaks, the glade defined by a wash of light. It is as if the light were emanating from the ground, silvering the moss clinging to the branches. The image, a gelatin silver print from wet collodion negative, is at once precise and suggestive. One senses the scene as the effect of the seeing of it, as if the eye were awakening it rather than awakening to it.
The landscapes deal in historical time. Mann wishes to capture the presence of persons and events in particular places, past or present. The past concerns the landscapes, the present concerns the immediate family, and the “extended family” work mixes things up. Mann might insist that “particular places” is a pleonasm; all places are singular and made so by their habitation. Human absence imprinting the land is the great subject here. The first of two groups, “The Land,” comprises images from the series published in the book Deep South (2005). The wet collodion process Mann often favors is a time- and labor-intensive method of developing, popular in the nineteenth century until replaced by the more tractable gelatin dry plate negative. But nostalgia has nothing to do with Mann’s choice of medium. Wet collodion gives a rich, dense image, yet for that does not lack in clarity. It imparts a sense of the image coming into focus from the edge inward, an effect key to her aesthetic. Getting a perfect image this way is a tense, controlled process, and Mann can do just this when she wants, as with Fontainebleau. But several of the most arresting photographs have “imperfections” introduced in the developing process, sometimes the result of accident, sometimes intentional. The picture framed by the entrance to “The Land” is the spectacular Deep South (Untitled) (Scarred Tree), an homage to Gustave Le Gray’s Hêtre: Fontainebleau (1855). Selective focus on the tree leaves the background indistinct: a fence and a hazy stand of trees beyond. The scar is malign, a transverse gash across the trunk deep enough to have blackened the bark. The tree is dramatized—dramatizes itself—as a witness to its injury and healing. Asymmetrical irising at the edges of the image and a drip patch at the left margin resonate that damage. This parallel is crucial and is repeated in different ways in all the landscapes. Developing is seeing; contingency has marked it, just as it has marked the tree. The image is doubly haunted: what is seen is haunted by the mark, the remnant of injurious human presence; the seeing is haunted by nature, by what transpires when fortune visits the darkroom.
Unexorcised human presence binds these landscapes, demanding as they are, to the even more radical set, “Last Measure.” These are representations of places of immeasurable carnage and suffering—Civil War battlegrounds like Antietam and the Wilderness. They are harrowing images of nature saturated in violence. Collodion wash transforms these photographic worlds into hells where air melts land, clouds are ash, and trenches are overgrown tumors. Matthew Brady dispatched a team to document the aftermath of Antietam, the results of which he exhibited in New York in 1862, one of the first graphic depictions of war dead. Mann’s Antietam (Black Sun) gives no quarter to Brady. Turner might have painted such a scene, if possessed by Goya. The pulsing, doubled black sun roots you in place before its malevolence. It is as if the brutality of the day were transferred by divine command into the form of the cosmos: fiat nox. Nature, again, has seeped back into its visualization; the experience is as of a form of apocalyptic sight.
If the landscapes are the center panel of a triptych, the left-wing panel, and thus the first to be seen in narrative order, contains Mann’s best-known work, the photographs published as Immediate Family (1992). “Immediate family” ordinarily means “the family closest to one.” It might also mean the family caught in its immediacy—in its natural state, in its everyday reality, or without artifice. It is Mann’s signal achievement to capture the first of these by hedging on the second and denying the third. The photographs are through-composed and, unless your everyday is playing with mom-the-artist, negotiating about this or that scenario about to be shot, not quotidian. The force of the pictures is in their idealization, their mythic take on childhood that is not sanitized, leaving in aggression, ill-advised adventure, injury, petulance, and self-display. These works are also antiauthoritarian, presenting a form of life in which the nascent adolescence and adulthood of children is lived out on its own terms. It is characteristic of the best British children’s literature, say Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, to depict such adult-free worlds. It is not that there are no adults; it is rather that they don’t really matter, that they don’t set the terms of freedom. In such worlds, children adapt features of the adult world to their own purposes. Sometimes this reveals little more than that some props have been put to imaginative use. But the child world of make-believe is also a child world of self-reliance, of free-range oddity, of fierce competition, of cruelty even. It is natural in such a world to play at all sorts of things without being self-conscious, but also without being innocent. The question arises for many: Does the presence of artist-mom spoil this world? It’s unlikely that the children would let her get away with that. I recall the controversy of the early 1990s, when these photographs first appeared. That the children sometimes posed nude was where many minds ground to a halt. Is the nudity not part of the broader fabric of play? One can imagine a child saying in exasperation that to assume otherwise is to be just like a grown-up.
The “extended family” pictures complete the triptych. I am lumping together three sets of images: photographs of Mann’s family taken (mostly) after the time of the immediate family pictures, images of African-American churches in the rural South, and portraits of young black men. As was the case with many Southern families of privilege, Mann grew up in the care of an African-American woman. Virginia Carter was an integral part of Mann’s family, but Mann writes that she took for granted, as whites of that time invariably did, Carter’s life outside of that orbit. That the Mann family was active in the civil rights movement did not alter the case. Who was Virginia Carter: her family, her childhood? Mann includes two window boxes of pictures from the Carter family collection, as well as snapshots of Carter at work, to begin answering those questions. Carter was not absent from Immediate Family, and two of those photographs are shown with a third, The Two Virginias 1, 3 & 4. Reflecting on the incompleteness of her understanding of someone whom she loved, I believe, led Mann in turn to investigate places of faith central to the life of Southern blacks. There are a number of prints of small African-American churches, some with active congregations, some no longer active. Some are forgotten places; yet, they were all sources of solidarity and resistance. Some are depicted suffused with light, as if dreamt forth, others crisply, as if a record were being made. Paired with these works are tintypes of swamps, the sometime refuges of escaped slaves. Blasted wastelands drained of contrast, places devoid of safety yet the only safety available, they are as heavy with the dead as any battlefield.
The portraits of black men that also occupy the last room of the gallery pose the question of the effect of that history today. They are well worth extended viewing, as is Triptych, monumental close-up head shots of Mann’s children, now grown, in which they look out as if Egyptian ka: timeless, benevolent, distanced. Several photographs of Mann’s husband are striking, Hephaestus especially so. It is a nude of uncommon strength. Developing has mottled the surface of the print, an irregularity extending downward from neck to pelvis that obscures the torso so that it is not possible to read the pose classically. The Manns have never concealed that Larry has late-onset muscular dystrophy and, given the title of the picture, some might consider the marks to signify the corrosive effects of illness. As misshapen as Hephaestus was, he was also a divine smith. I prefer to read the foxing as molten metal coursing down, strengthening that to which it adheres. I can’t help seeing Hephaestus as paired with the final image of the show, a middle-distance shot of Larry Mann coursing a hilltop, the mist parting at his coming. It is unabashedly romantic, even devotional. Beyond time and place even, what unites this work is that it loves in the seeing.
Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame