Sally Mann: Battlefields

Taubman Museum of Art
February 7, 2015 – May 2, 2016

In 2001, Sally Mann began a series that focused on how our landscape is haunted with the memory of war. Her travels brought her to many of the Civil War battlefields, from Fredericksburg, Virginia to Antietam, Maryland, where she documented the various sites on which heavy losses occurred. Due to the photographic process and her aesthetic intent, the landscapes appear darkly mysterious, somber and often difficult to identify, enigmas that viewers must interpret for themselves. Her discovery of her father’s passion for photographing the decaying vestiges of the South and her firsthand experience of witnessing death on her property became the deeply-rooted impetus for this series of works. In her book Hold Still, Mann describes her role as a witness to these battlefield sites and queries “Do these fields, upon which unspeakable carnage occurred, where unknowable numbers of bodies are buried, bear witness in some way?”

Mann created these evocative, monumentally scaled images with a large format camera and an antiquated method: the wet plate collodion. One of the earliest and most technically complex photographic methods, invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1850, the collodian chemistry produces a deep, rich effect which is further enhanced in Mann’s photographs by her addition of Soluvar varnish to which she added diatomaceous earth. The combined techniques lend ambiguity to her landscapes in which clues to specific sites are often absent. The exhibited images speak to the universal as Mann, through her camera lens, lovingly memorializes these hallowed sites. In 2003, Mann described her Battlefield images in a similar way to American Civil War poet Walt Whitman who wrote in his poem Pensive on Her Dead Gazing: “And you trees down in your roots to bequeath to all future trees, My dead absorb or South or North – my young men’s bodies absorb, and their precious precious blood.”

Sally Mann was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1951 and received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Hollins University. Her work has been the focus of exhibitions worldwide, including a recent major retrospective of her work titled The Flesh and the Spirit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She has received numerous awards, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment of the Humanities, and Guggenheim Foundation grants. Mann’s work is held by major institutions internationally and she is represented by Gagosian Gallery, New York and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York. Mann’s work has been the subject of over fourteen monographs and her newest book, Hold Still, was published in May of 2015 by Little, Brown. “Sally Mann: Battlefields” has been organized by the Taubman Museum of Art and curated by Amy G. Moorefield, Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Collections with special assistance from Gagosian Gallery in New York.

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