This article hopes to encourage photographers, amateur and professional, to take advantage of an exhibition of 115 photographs by Sally Mann (b.1951) at the National Gallery of Art (NGA). The show, Sally Mann: A ThousandCrossings may be seen until May 28 in the West Building. The NGA is now one of the largest repositories of Mann’s photographs following the acquisition of 25 prints from the merger with the Corcoran Gallery. It is a disturbing, inspiring, educational viewing designed into five sections: Family. The Land, Last Measure, Abide With Me, and What Remains. The photos were taken between 1970 and 2000, and tell a poignant story of the life and environment of the Southern States filtered through her special vision. Section One, “Family” includes portraits of children and family members, nude, vulnerable, and strikingly unemotional, disturbing. She describes “the radical light of the South” in another section—the somber tones of the woodlands and seacoasts, and the images of Civil War sites such as Antietam, Appomattox, and Fredericksburg. Many of the portraits and other images shown were taken with the old 8x10 format cameras using antique lenses using the 19th century collodion wet plates. There is a special beauty rendered by this difficult processing technique, especially since Mann intentionally kept the smudges, scratches, and light flares embedded into the prints to add to her aesthetic decisions. In the film in the exhibition Mann demonstrates the late 19th Century collodion wet plate process used for many of the large prints on display. It is a cumbersome and labor-intensive process in which a syrupy collodion base is applied to a glass plate, covered with light sensitive silver nitrate, drained and exposed in the camera. Mann remarked that the large format prints had more aesthetic impact than smaller format cameras. This observation may be challenged by contemporary photographers anchored to the speed and convenience of the digital world. The NGA provides a 332-page catalogue with the expected high quality research provided by Sarah Greenough, Senior Curator NGA, and Sarah Kennel, Curator of Photography, Peabody Essex Museum. The catalogue is available at shop.ngs.gov or 202-842-6002.
(Marshall H. Cohen).
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