We recently visited the Sally Mann retrospective A Thousand Crossings at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. In truth, we went with preconceptions, and we left with concerns.
First the preconceptions. Our knowledge of Sally Mann was of a photographer originating from Lexington, Virginia, admirably committed to the old-school wet plate collodion process of photography, and who had inadvertently courted controversy with a series of photographs of her young children, often photographed naked.
The exhibition of photographs at the Jeu de Paume divides into five categories: Family; The Land; Last Measure; Abide with Me; and What Remains. Family and The Land are pretty much self-explanatory; Last Measure portrays American Civil War battlefields; Abide with Me examines issues of race, with a particular focus on a woman who worked for Mann’s family when the photographer was a child––Virginia “Gee-Gee” Carter; and What Remains looks at issues surrounding mortality and decay.
Individually, no one photograph in the exhibition stood out for us as remarkable; nevertheless, collectively, they created an… atmosphere. Perhaps a better description would be an … unease.
Death and decay are themes often attributed to Mann. With these themes in mind, unease should be an easily-associated adjective, however our sense of unease derives from a different perspective.
So, we come to the concerns. Mann’s work is rooted in place. Lexington, Virginia. It is a place inseparable from the history of slavery and Civil War, and although Mann explores these themes in her photographs, we are not sure that it is Mann’s story to tell. While recognising that Mann, herself, is authentically as much a part of this place as anyone else, somehow we feel that hers is a different story. Equally interesting; simply different.
Our unease originates from the sense of looking at something false; a falsehood exacerbated by the wet plate collodion process, which blurs the boundaries between reconstruction and historical truth: modern graduate students modelling as African American slaves; imperfections in the developing process deliberately creating a sense of foreboding in modern-day Civil War battlefield depictions.
There is a fascinating story to be told here, and it could be argued that without Sally Mann it will not be told; however… our sense of unease lingers longer than the exposure time for a wet-plate negative.
© Os Bros
Os Bros found the Sally Mann retrospective raised a lot of interesting questions.