Critics’ Picks

Washington, DC

Sally Mann

National Gallery of Art
Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
March 4–May 28

Land, domesticity, race, and identity converge in this survey of 109 photographs from the past forty years of Sally Mann’s career. Though it excludes the first decade of her output, writ large, the exhibition broadly addresses the culture and troubled history of the American South. Featured here is the infamous series “Family Pictures”—predominately images of her children taken roughly between 1984 and 1993—including the never-before-seen photograph On the Maury, 1992; landscapes of Virginia, Mississippi, and Georgia from the 1998 “Deep South” series; the nine ambrotypes of Untitled (Self-Portrait), 2006–12; a later series of photographs of the artist’s offspring from 2004; three documentary videos about various aspects of her oeuvre; and two newer series depicting rivers and African American churches.

The narrative of the South—a fraught, catchall term—is overemphasized throughout the exhibition, making one wonder if this is the only lens through which to view Mann’s practice. A deconstruction of such a grand framework would benefit the curation, as a regional focus somewhat excuses visitors from contemplating the conceptual quagmire that lies beneath the alluring surface of each photograph, which the photographer executed using tintype, gelatin silver, or wet-plate collodion techniques. Her works are powerful not only as depictions of an area freighted with meaning, but also for how they speak to the complexity of representing a national character. Moreover, they interrogate American history and its future and comment on issues around the endangered rural landscape, the normalization of violence against black men and women, changes to traditional family structures, and aging. Rather than a lamentation over or a longing for the past, these pictures operate as metaphorical demarcations of an empowered pathway forward for a country—and a people—riddled by divisions.