The show was jointly organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. It is weighted toward photographs made since 2000, which account for roughly two-thirds of 110 works, all but five black-and-white.
Mann first came to widespread attention in a less than auspicious way. In 1992, conservative culture warriors attacked the publication of her fourth book, “Immediate Family,” which includes 13 images (of 65) in which one or more of her three then-young kids is unclothed — a not uncommon occurrence at a cabin on isolated land during a humid summer day. A brilliant picture like “The Ditch” unravels the fearful hysteria that fueled the uproar.
Like many students of art history, curator Sarah Kennel’s first introduction to Sally Mann came with Immediate Family. Published in 1992, Mann’s groundbreaking and controversial exploration of childhood stands as one of the great photography books of our time.
If there is one medium over which the photographer Sally Mann has total command, it is the written word. She is a superb writer, having learned well from her favorite authors and poets, Nabokov, Faulkner, Welty, Rushdie, Eliot, and Pound. Her particular gift is metaphor. Here, for instance, is Mann describing the drying blood on the frozen ground after a convicted sex offender who had escaped onto her farm was shot, killed, and hauled away: the blood puddle “shrank perceptibly, forming a brief meniscus before leveling off again, as if the earth had taken a delicate sip.”
It’s December and in Virginia, at Sally Mann’s countryside home, she has invited Bill T. Jones for a photo session. Death – its menacing approach or dark legacy – looms large in Mann’s work, and it’s no surprise to find the dancer-choreographer’s high cheekbones made skull-like behind her lens. “Almost a death mask,” she concludes in a video of the encounter shown in a major survey at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Sitter and photographer, both 66, are keenly aware they have entered their final chapter.
The earth and its relationship to mortality are Sally Mann's terrain in this series on the battlefields of the Civil War. It is a subject far removed from the lyrical landscapes of the American South and the intimate glimpses of family life that she has dealt with in previous photographic essays.
At the opening last spring of “Immediate Family,” Sally Mann’s show at the Houk Friedman Gallery in New York, the winsome young subjects of the photographs aroused as much curiosity as the artist herself. Motoring among the spectators like honorees at a testimonial dinner, Mann’s three children — Emmett, 12, Jessie, 10, and Virginia, 7 — looked completely at ease with the crowd’s prying adoration. While her mother and father conversed with friends and admirers, Jessie orbited the four rooms in her red dress, fielding questions from strangers eager to know more about her parents. Beneath a portrait of himself in the water, Emmett shrugged off the stares and expressed a typical teen-age frame of mind. “These shoes cost $70,” he boasted about his opening night footwear. All three seemed unconcerned by the fact that on the surrounding white walls they could be examined, up close, totally nude.