New York

Sally Mann

Like certain photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, Sally Mann’s images of her children growing up in Virginia became widely known for reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of the work. The appearance of her pictures of innocence and experience happened to coincide with a full-blown national sex panic, driven by right—wing moralizing and societal confusions about children and sexuality. In the ensuing clamor, the honesty and intensity of Mann’s images—not to mention their lyric subtleties—were mostly drowned out. But notoriety can he as good as fame these days (and often more bankable), so she and her work have flourished despite vitriolic allegations that her “Immediate Family” series evidenced bad mothering.

Now comes “Mother Land,” a show of landscape photographs of the American South. This may sound like a departure from Mann’s earlier work, but it looks more like a return. One of the signal strengths of her portraits was the way she placed her children in dialogue with the landscape—and she has often produced “figureless” landscapes as well. “Mother Land” presents two distinct but related series of black-and-white photographs called “Virginia,” 1991–96, and “Georgia,” 1996. The “Virginia” images (all untitled 30-by-38-inch prints dry-mounted onto boards) are mostly dark and lush, while those in “Georgia” (also untitled, 38-by-48 inches, and floated in the frames) are blasted with light and barren.

Using old, damaged lenses on an 8-by-10 view camera, Mann admits light leaks, imperfections, and distortions, and then extends their effects in the darkroom. Often one part of an image is in dead sharp focus, while everything else blurs and wavers to the edges. Space is warped and twisted within frames. In the “Georgia” series especially, the effect is one of looking back in time, through layers of memory and amnesia. A chemical factory on the horizon becomes a battleship in the mist. A ragged patch of trees seems to retreat over the crest of a hill. In a portentous arrangement of logs, one bent and snaking trunk lifts a dorsal fin into the air, where it dissolves into transparency.

It is often impossible to tell whether a particular detail is part of the landscape itself or a mark on the negative or print. By materializing the vagaries of vision and memory into an embodied abstraction, “Mother Land” achieves a remarkable integration of form and content. The land shown here is that of the old Civil War South, of which Shelby Foote writes (in an excerpt from his novel Shiloh, which hung next to the images), “We were in love with the past . . . in love with death.” This, Mann suggests, is what the South and photography share. If we think of the South as a state of mind, then the two series represent its emotional hemispheres. The “Virginia” photographs are almost sentimental; while the “Georgia” photographs are war-wrecked and cruel.

Unlike the landscape itself, which is by nature unconventional, landscape photography operates within strict constraints and according to a small number of agreed-upon rules that have been established over time. One can (or must) break these rules, but to do so and remain within the legible rhetoric of landscape is difficult. Robert Frank did it in Mabou, as did Barbara Ess in the Hudson Valley. Mann manages this balance by dissolving the barrier between viewer and image. The rich tones of the “Virginia” prints, especially, give them a watery look that draws us in and obscures the edges between things, a quality reminiscent of the photographs of Josef Sudek. There seems to he little there by way of incident in either Mann’s or Sudek’s landscapes, yet both offer rich atmospheres for the eye to enter.

To achieve these sublime effects, Mann takes tremendous risks, pushing the work out onto one technical or emotional limb after another. At the approximate center of the “Georgia” series is a light-blasted image, overexposed almost into oblivion. Looking closely, we can make out some bare trees to the right, and three telephone poles on a low hill. In the center of the image appears an abstract but unmistakably vulval form, which seems to be emanating from the landscape. Or perhaps the landscape is collapsing into it.

“Mother Land” is a stunningly beautiful body of work. Mann’s children must be proud of her.

David Levi Strauss contributes frequently to Artforum.