How does one capture your past? Words, expressions—imagery. It’s what you’ll witness in Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, on view through May 28 at the National Gallery of Art. The exhibit features portraits and landscapes taken in the American South over the last 40 years and, through them, traces the artist’s relationship with home. A complex story unfolds, one that explores the intersection of beauty and suffering. For Mann, they are inextricable: She describes loss as an inducement to appreciate life.
The exhibition is organized into five thematic sections based on the scope of her work—“Family,” “The Land,” “Last Measure,” “Abide With Me” and “What Remains.” Says Senior Curator Sarah Greenough: “We equated the path of the exhibition as like a stream, starting with the family and then branching out to a wider river to address larger regional and national issues, only to narrow at the end and return to the source, the family.”
Photographs of her loved ones bookend those of Southern landscapes, Civil War battlefields and pieces that grapple with race in the South. Take “Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie),” part of “The Land” section. The image shows a shimmering river, its banks shadowed by lush trees, a trestle bridge on the horizon. When the viewer learns that the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, was thrown into the same river in 1955, the composition’s poetic use of light and dark takes on more significance. Greenough says Mann “shows the landscape as a vessel for collective memory,” and begs the question: “How can a place that looks so ordinary be so filled with pain?”
It’s a dichotomy that makes Mann’s work particularly poignant, and she further cultivates a sense of history via the abstract, painterly marks that she incorporates during the development process. For example, in the final room, “What Remains,” visitors observe a series of portraits of Mann’s husband, Larry. He suffers from late-onset muscular dystrophy. “Was Ever Love” shows his head in profile, resting on a blanket; his eyes are closed, scratches and a halo of light isolate his head from both the room and the rest of his body. It evokes 19th-century postmortem photography and, at the same time, makes salient Larry’s handsomeness and dignity. Mann and Greenough underscore that what remains, in the end, is love. Free, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest