UNITED STATES—When you first step into the Getty Center, you are struck by the vast precision of the architecture. The smoothed travertine marble provides a blank slate for the many works of art to truly stand out and be the focus.
Once more the curators at the Getty have instilled life in the center. Through February 10, 2019, the Getty presents Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings. This is the first major international exhibition of Sally Mann’s work.
Opening into what at first seems like a single room, the casual viewer is struck immediately with the starkness of the white frames with white matting as it is contrasted against the cold storm blue walls. Upon walking closer, the contrast deepens, this time esteeming itself to the image. The black and white images of Mann capture a sense of emotion that creates a longing for the familiar simplicity that is seen in the images. The wholesome beauty of Mann’s children photographed in the nude channels the altruistic nature of a cherub.
She transcends the preconceived notion of nudity as vulgar and develops a comfort level between the viewer and subject in a way that mimics the nurturing of familial bonds. Mann staged a number of the photographs, yet even in the staged moments there is a degree of spontaneity that welcomes the viewer into the serenity of the family’s secluded Virginia cabin.
“Many of the pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic, but most are of ordinary things every mother has seen,” said Sally Mann in “Immediate Family,” the 1992 published collection of photographs that Mann took between 1985 and 1994. The photographs welcome the viewer into the intimacy of their moments.
Childhood is seen to be pure through imperfections as it represents a time that precursors the impending loss of naivety into adulthood. The ability of Mann to capture such an essence is heavy in part to her attention to detail, both in setting up her shot and developing the shot to achieve the desired look. Mann used an 8 x 10 camera for a majority of her shots in the collection, giving her images a depth of field that draws the eye first to the focal point, then farther back into the image, giving the viewer a strong sense of place. Mann’s skills of burning and dodging her images creates a focal point that sets a protagonist of the image. When looking at the image, the eye is drawn not to the most focused point of the image, it is instead being drawn to the area of the sharpest contrast and light, which allows Mann to provide the image multiple meanings.
As the gallery flows into the surrounding spaces, the contrast present in the family photos dissipates and gives way to a heavier influence of darkness. Instead of showing emotion through the facial expressions and movements of her children, she turns to the details of the natural world to embody the emotion trapped within it. Nature bears witness to the travesties of war and social injustices that once dominated the southern United States. The minimal contrasts create an effervescent glow that transcends the image and brings to light deeper conflicts.
“[The South is] a place extravagant in its beauty, reckless in its fecundity, terrible in its indifference, and dark with memories,” said Mann in her description. In the collection of photos of the Battle of Antietam, the antique lenses used takes the viewer to a time of the Civil War and the physical position of the camera lens places the viewer in the perspective of the dying soldiers. The details of the photos are subdued, giving the larger impression of a full scene rather than a specific focal point.
Mann creates intimacy through her work. With subject matter that speaks to a large audience, she is able to make subtle remarks about the emotions that are being drawn out with her images. In her collection of work, Abide with Me, Mann embarked on a series of photographs that considered how slavery and segregation left their mark on the landscape of Virginia, as well as her childhood. Deep South, Untitled (Scarred Tree) from 1998 captures the damage of slavery and violence in the simplicity of the scar. While the surrounding environment has healed over and tried to forget the travesties of the violence, the certain sections of the land have preserved what is left and has served as a testimony to the actions and inactions.
Moving throughout the gallery, there is a sense of place that the viewer is welcomed into. From the family photographs to the darkness harbored in the natural world’s memory, Mann draws the viewer in with technique and subject focus. Leaving the gallery, you have a sense of understanding for Mann’s own life and her struggle to come to terms with human existence in the tumultuous world around us.