The history of photography tracks the cultural history of childhood and the innocence we like to think abides there. When the inventor of photography, Henry Fox Talbot, made images of his family in the 1840s, people hadn’t yet developed the camera-ready selves that in 21st century America even children develop very early. Between Fox Talbot’s big slow box camera and our own speed-freak smart Phones, photography has kept watch over, pursued, infancy and childhood. Fox Talbot’s dressed-up children, dressed and posed as miniaturized adults, are stiff and a bit stuffy. In the 1890s, Julia Margaret Cameron depicted children as idealized emanations of time, softened, bemused, and aspirational. Images by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) are proprietary, vaguely yearning, and treat children as nearly untouchable artifacts of time. Closer to our time came, in hopscotch order: Helen Levitt’s hundreds of pictures of New York street kids inventing themselves and an ongoing theatricality; Ralph Meatyard’s weirdly sinister rural pastorals of kids in oversized Halloween masks like shrunken, ominous adults; Robert Frank’s shadowy views of children, especially his own, as tender hostages to fortune; Diane Arbus’s estranged and estranging presentations of young people as aloof as her adult subjects.
My hit-and-miss chronology leaves out practically every other serious photographer, including those nobody knows about because they is just us. But my sampler of precedents streams behind the early work of Sally Mann, subject of a retrospective now at the Getty Center. Born in 1951 into a comfortable middle class Virginia family, Mann wanted to become a writer and many years later, in 2015, published a canny, stylish memoir, Hold Still, but after acquiring basic skills in her high school and college years she switched to photography. She’s a Southern artist; the spectral presences in and around her work are Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy. So, too, are the Civil War dead and slaves. She and her husband, the blacksmith and lawyer Larry Mann, have lived for years in a house they built in Lexington, Virginia, summering at a family cabin along the Maury River. She photographed their children as nature’s creatures, more or less free, in woods, on rivers, or at home, often naked, as Sally herself was free to run naked in her early years.
In her first important book, Immediate Family (1992), the “naked” bit incited conservative commentators to censure Mann’s treatment of her children, accusing her, at best, of exploiting her kids for sensational ends and, at worst, of abusing them. Conservatives are quick to chastise artists for doing what artists do, which is to make a claim on truths of feeling, however disconcerting those truths are.
Mann’s early photographs of her kids and their environments are an essay on childhood as a Rousseauian state of nature. The photos make it seem that she has just happened upon her children in their naked natures, semi-serious, gleeful, silly, though the surprise is only apparent since virtually all the images were posed, with her children as collaborators. Sometimes the pictures are literary conceits. Her son Emmett (named after Emmett Till, the black Chicago teenager who was kidnapped, mutilated and killed in Mississippi in 1955) lies in a ditch, folded back over his legs, water sluicing around him while others look on. It’s a primal birth-chute and baptismal image. Childhood initiations and play overlap Mann’s sense of menace and imminent harm. In her shockingly red and messy picture of Emmett having a nosebleed, the blood sops his mouth and streaks down his naked torso. It’s only a nosebleed, but it stands in for a child’s first recognition of being made of blood, of containing blood. We see Mann’s daughter Jessie absorbed in play while in the deep background, on the riverbank, an alligator approaches. Even though we know the beast is made of plastic, it’s insidious and portentous. In another image, just as the serpent in many depictions of Eden hangs from a tree above Adam and Eve, we see Jessie umbrella-d by poisonous overhanging trumpet vines.
For most of her career Mann has used an 8x10 view camera and has trained herself to use the dicey wet collodion technique, which involves coating a glass plate with a gelatinous compound of ether and alcohol, dipping it in a light sensitive solution, then creating a negative on the wet plate. After the ambiguous idylls of the family photographs and their fraught romance of childhood, Mann in the 1990s began to make images vacuumed of people but saturated with a sense of the Southern past. She traveled to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, looking for the viscous mournful air of Southern wilds: a scarred tree, mossy live-oaks, a rickety wooden bridge over the Tallahatchie from which Till’s dead body (lashed with barbed wire to a cotton gin) was thrown, and imagery that recalls the mythic force of rivers in Twain, Whitman, and Faulkner. The eeriest object she found is a tubular concrete coffin lying on the ground. The water table is so high in many places that, as in New Orleans, the dead can’t be interred. The coffin looks oddly planted, a little atilt, as if finding its balance. It’s a civilized object that looks cruelly alien, its extraterrestrial look intensified by comet flares (the chancy desirable outcomes of the collodion method) raining down on the scene. In her reckoning, the riverbank where Till’s body washed up looks like an open wound, a cursed, polluted place.
In her essays on the South, Mann wanted imagery that looked bruised by history and bore the accidental “autobiographical” marks of its own process. Her Immediate Family pictures gave evidence of a wilderness occupied, domesticated, lived into in the real present. In her later work, she left domesticity behind and looked for the still raw presence of the past, as in her series about the Great Dismal Swamp on the Carolina coast, where runaway slaves hid. She also photographed country churches, some being pulled down by vegetation, some barely emergent from shadows, all once or still vessels of praise and faith. Coded into her images of history’s residues is the process that turns these spots of time into visionary moments. She experimented with antique and damaged lenses, and wet plate technology let her interact with but not completely control the process, which resulted in imagery that’s destabilized, defaced, “worked.” The pictures have wild, garish surface eruptions — boils, solar flashes, scorch marks and mini-conflagrations.
In the 2000s Mann pushed the collodion process until she found a wilder plasticity to accommodate her feelings about Civil War sites she visited, especially the bloody theaters of Antietam, Manassas, and the Wilderness. How bloody? At Antietam, twenty-two thousand casualties in a single day. A soldier present at Coal Harbor wrote that when he walked the field the following day “the dead lay thick enough in some places to have walked on.” The gunfights literally tore nature apart. That same soldier, Reuben Allen Pierson by name, said that “every twig was riddled and many trees not more than a foot in diameter had as many as forty balls in its trunk.” Mann was also in conversation with Civil War photographers like Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Alexander Gardner. When she photographs a cornfield at Antietam that, because of the willful disorder and temperamentalism stirred up by her technique, seems to be under assault by a mysterious undulating sky-borne turbulence, she’s recovering and adding to the moral force of her predecessors’ imagery.
Mann didn’t just allow accident into her process, she invited and implemented it. The dust on the negative of her Cold Harbor image creates smears and bullets, and her vintage lenses make Antietam look still punished by the violence once let loose there. She makes these lands seem like consciences maintaining memories of the worst things. The photos looks like charcoal sketches: blurry anthracite textures run from powdery to granular to pebbly, and their tone throughout is mournful and irresolute. It’s a re-imagining of a pristine landscape blasted, eroded, and chewed up by time and the harm it brings. In Black Sun (Antietam) pleats of ashen light fan out over the sun’s great black dome and its bizarre after-image. The heavens in these pictures are in a roiling Shakespearean disorder. The trees in Battlefields, Fredericksburg (Cedar Trees) are thrashed by gusting clouds: the heavens look burled with anger over the blood lost and boys massacred. These pictures remind us of the damage inflicted by the recently designed minié conical slug that broke bone and tore arteries more forcefully and efficiently than traditional ball rounds. Her darkroom manipulations suggest or articulate their legacy of harm: lines shoot through images like tracers; pips rive the landscape as minié balls once did; the earth and sky, with their scabby, scarred textures, look out of joint, as if the camera itself were grieving havoc.
In the mid to late 2000s, Mann brought back the body and its habitations, black bodies above all. One of the men she photographs poses curled up on a bench, as if still enduring the Middle Passage. When she returns to the domesticated body, there’s a change. She photographs the faces of her now grown children in extreme close-up, as if scrutinizing them for evidence of mortality; she studies her physically powerful (and handsome) husband Larry in physical decline as he copes with late onset muscular dystrophy; she becomes interested for the first time in her own body and (after a serious riding accident) its diminutions. She makes visible the actions of her consciousness pressing back at her materials, querying a scene or a body, the earth and its histories, with an antiquated technique plied by a super-modern sensibility, one, however, not compelled or inflected by irony or meta-anything. Mann is haunted by things passed and passing, but she’s also the haunter, the seeker who wants the land to give up its secrets, or who mourns secrets that can’t be unearthed.
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is on view at the Getty Center until February 10.