“I’ve been coming to terms with the history into which I was born, the people within that history, and the land on which I live, since before I could tie my shoes,” says photographer Sally Mann (b. 1951), whose major retrospective A Thousand Crossings is opening at Jeu de Paume, Paris. Born in Lexington, Virginia, she has dedicated over forty years to taking haunting, experimental photographs of the southern US. A sense of deep love meets a profound awareness of its complex heritage, asking questions about what it means to live in the South today.
“I felt shame and some inchoate sense of accountability,” Mann continues. “The past haunted me from what seemed like the far side of time. Now, in this present, there is an urgent cry rising, one that compels me again and again to try to reconcile my love for this place with its brutal history.” The artists’ work taps into the legacy of the area – at once homeland, graveyard, refuge and battlefield – exploring how it continues to shape American identity and experience.
Mann’s work is often personal, delving into the essential themes of lived existence. Notions of memory, desire and family play out within the exhibition, which opens with works from the 1980s. Swampland, fields and ruined houses become backdrops for childhood pursuits and a continual search for “the radical light of the American South.”
The show also asks thought-provoking questions about history, identity, race and religion. A series devoted to sites of the American Civil War presents landscapes blurred by effects including lens flares, hazes and streaks – positioning them as locations of remembrance, defeat, ruin and tentative rebirth. Mann also explores the Great Dismal Swamp and waterways in south-eastern Virginia, which were places of refuge for slaves during the 18th century.
A Thousand Crossings closes with the photographer’s enduring fascination with the process of decay. Ghostly depictions of her children and husband are presented alongside self-portraits, documenting illness, physical changes and the aftermath of accidents. This sense of mortality pervades the entire collection, offering a deeply honest and insightful look into the collective consciousness.
The exhibition runs 18 June to 22 September. Find out more here.
Lead image: Bean’s Bottom, c. 1991. Sally Mann. Private collection. © Sally Mann