Virginian Sally Mann is a great photographer, famous for her brilliant and brilliantly controversial pictures of her three starkly beautiful children. In Immediate Family (a traveling exhibition and book from 1992), the kids speak to us amid Southern clichés: tobacco spit, skinned squirrels, an old pickup truck, swimming holes, lush wet landscapes. The pictures reminisce with other Southern photographers: Her son Emmett walking with a bag over his head might hail Kentuckian Ralph Eugene Meatyard; all the images play with fellow Virginian Emmett Gowin, for whom Mann’s son was named; her densely black and white photographs are a far cry from Mississippian William Eggleston’s bright color pictures, but there is a bit of his “Halloween” (1971) in many of hers. But unlike any other pictures I know, the wonderful Mann children look us right in the eye (through the camera eye of their mother) and beg us (as only children can do) to question not only the truth of the photograph, but also the profoundly limited relational braid of innocence, childhood and motherhood.
A while ago, Mann’s famous children started to shrink within the landscape writ large, just as the three were growing up and into and out of adolescence. One such photograph is “Sempervirens ‘Stricta’” (1995). Here, daughter Virginia (away from her southern Mother Land) is in Italy, dwarfed by the formally planted trees of Tuscany. The trees are at once fresh and aged: Their bodily trunks look to be made of dried bones, yet they boast dense, leafy sartorial dresses (short and long) of rich, spongy, grassy growth. The trees speak maternality: Large and imposing, they narrate the feminized cycle of death/drying/dying out and the sprouting of new growth/regrowth/growing up. Virginia, tiny underneath the great mother trees, sees the maternal (she looks at us through her mother’s camera). Virginia, both girl and becoming woman, straddles her bike (a little too big). She is not, yet, riding. In time, Virginia will take her beautiful Italian bicycle down the inviting path, through the opening of the trees spotted with a dusty light, through a Mother Land both foreign and inviting, fecund and barren, repetitive and unpredictable. Virginia is ready, but not quite ready, to cycle the earth.
Mann urgently beckons Mother Time, perhaps most succinctly and obviously with pictures of her daughter Virginia. For in “real life,” Virginia Mann reflects both her mother’s mother land (Virginia) and her mother’s caregiver, who was like a mother to her, her “second mother” (a grand old woman named Virginia Carter). As Mann writes:
I have lived all my life in southwestern Virginia, the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And all my life many things have been the same. When we stop by to see Virginia Carter, for whom our youngest daughter is named, we rock on her cool blue porch. … Some time ago I found a glass-plate negative picturing the cliffs in the 1800s. I printed it and held it up against the present reality, and the trees and caves and stains on the rock are identical. Even the deadwood, held in place by tenacious vines, has not slipped down.
Ninety-three years separate the two Virginias, my daughter and the big woman who raised me. The dark powerful arms are shrunken now, even as the tight skin of my daughter’s pucker with abundance. But, still, it seems that time effects slow changes here.
Virginia is everywhere in Immediate Family. And even when neither little Virginia Mann nor ancient Virginia Carter is there, Virginia as a landscape of leaves, earth, mountains, mud, stick, squash, morels, dead squirrels, field, yard eggs, dead deer, crabs, rivers is there.
Harder to look at than the family picture of Immediate Family are Mann’s landscapes without any children at all. Many of them are gigantically reproduced in the Edwynn Houk Gallery catalog, Mother Land (1997), that accompanied the exhibition of the same title. Looking at Mann’s Virginian river and Virginia trees (“Untitled,” 1995), I seize on the universality of landscapes, here and elsewhere, now and then. I think about the taste of water, what gloomy waters hold, what floats on water, how I want to live there (in Virginia, in the fantasies of pure quiet, wet earth that they induce in me). In her Georgia landscape (“Untitled,” 1992), old black trees huddle at a distance around a large urn that would collect water if the bright white sky were not cloudless. I squint in response to the bright light that the camera points at. I succumb to the sky of white field. Just as kudzu dresses the trees of the American South in layers and layers of green Adam and Eve aprons, covering up their otherwise secret trunks and branches, as if these trunks and branches were genitals to be hidden, a penetrating darkness overtakes more than half of the picture. I squint, also, to see the detail first missed by the overwhelming black of the image. I am learning from Mann to see what has been, perhaps, too close to see. Regarding her recent depopulated landscapes of Virginia and Georgia, she comments:
They beckon me with just the right look of dispossession, the unassertiveness of the peripheral. These are the places and things most of us drive by unseeing, scenes of Southern dejection we’d contemplate only if our car broke down and left us by the verdant roadside.
Compared to the family pictures, which had the natural magnetism of portraiture, these are uncompelling.
Looking at Mann’s Southern landscapes, I begin to feel compelled. I work harder at learning to love the everyday aspects of the overlooked, the really boring things. I have even learned to love the kudzu weed which smothers the trees in Mann’s misty Georgian landscape (“Untitled,” 1996). “But,” as Mann herself admits, “it’s not that they are easy to take or look at.” They are not. Their boredom is their achievement and, in turn, mine. “The landscape is teasingly slow to give up its secrets” and I am learning to like the wait.
The landscape, of course, is not boring at all: It is life. True, the earthly mundane gives rise to plastic roofs, power plants, chain restaurants, satellite dishes, and transmission towers masquerading as trees, but it also blossoms living plants, seeds, humus, time embodied, in sum the sensations of heaven, which I know now and feel as particularly Southern. As Katherine Dieckmann writes in her review of Mother Land, “It’s often said that the South is hyperbolized by those seeking a site of nostalgia and excess, a place where the sweet, humid air forever carries an aroma of loss. … But … it’s often Southerners who promote their own clichés, and every cliché contains a smidge of truth.” From the North, I try to be Southern. I promote their chosen clichés, in the same spirit that I may be guilty of promoting our cultural clichés of motherhood.
Printed with a view camera, with old and flawed lenses, using the wet collodion process of the masters of the 19th century, soaking prints in tea–the landscapes of Mother Land are unabashedly nostalgic. The word “nostalgia” is derived from the Greek nosos (“return to native land”), and algos (“suffering” or “grief”). Nostalgia is Mother Land missed. But the title of my essay also has a double meaning. Mann’s Mother Land is not just a longing for the past, it is also a lesson forward: It teaches us not to overlook the landscape, which I had, personally, missed before.
Carol Mavor is Professor of Art History at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the author of Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs, and Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden.