The Specter of Humanity: Sally Mann Photographs the South

maria j. bastos-stanek

Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985(fig. 1) Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | Guggenheim Museum

Consider the precarious uncertainties of childhood life. Many children grow up in the security of their parent’s loving embrace, vigilance, and care. But even among the most ideal family relationships, the primal struggle between a child who desires autonomy and a parent who desires to keep their children safe play out in everyday life. The emotional difficulties of growing up and the unique family relationships that inform them is one of the themes that American photographer Sally Mann explores in her most recent exhibition, Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings. Now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, co-organized with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the exhibition presents the work of her over forty-year career. Mann combines experimental techniques with challenging subjects to create photographs which are deeply in tune with the history of photography and challenge the limits of spectatorship.

Those visiting A Thousand Crossings expecting to see the works that made her famous—images of her childrenwill encounter them in the first few rooms of the large exhibition. Only by advancing through the show will viewers discover Mann’s own transformation, one marked by her growing awareness of the racial divisions in the South. Curators Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel divide the exhibition into three sections: photographs of Mann’s children in their remote home in Virginia, landscapes that capture the Southern Gothic obsession with tradition and history, and photographs that mine Mann’s personal history and identity to explore the public complexity of race. Mann allows her audience access into her own process of introspection. In doing so, she asks her audience to consider the complex factors that inform how we see the world.

Mann has received both praise and criticism for her series Immediate Family, produced between 1984 and 1991. In the series, Mann’s photographs her three small children at their family farm in rural Virginia—a picturesque setting along a river in the Shenandoah Valley. Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia play, sleep, and swim at their leisure, often nude. While the works depict with sometimes unsettling candor the innocence of childhood, anyone who has participated in family life is likely to be familiar with the scenes in Immediate Family. Indeed, it is this feeling of familiarity—of the universal qualities of childhood—and Mann’s unseen presence from behind the camera which lend to the disarming honesty of the series, even when many of the photographs are carefully composed. No child is ever truly independent, or is rarely left alone. Mann acts as a an unseen presence among her children. She infuses what may otherwise be straightforward photography with a subjective framework rifled with emotional intent.

2001.199_ph_web-1(fig. 2) Sally Mann, Emmett and the White Boy, 1990, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | Guggenheim Museum

Mann’s presence from behind the camera shapes how her subjects react to being photographed. In Emmett and the White Boy, 1990, (fig. 2) two young boys seem to suspend their play in order to accommodate Mann and her camera. Leaning against a tree with his arm stretched high above, Emmett seems to wait confrontationally like a child who is vigorously at home in his surroundings. The other boy identified only by skin color looks on at Mann hesitantly. With his hand covering his mouth, he seems uncomfortable posing in front of a camera (despite a bicep tattoo that suggests otherwise), while Emmett boldly asserts himself despite the intrusion of his mother’s advances. Even in photographs that convey a deeper sense of anxiety or melancholy about growing up, such as in Jessie Bites, 1985, (fig. 1), Mann’s presence is never far away.

Once her children reached adolescence, Mann turned her attention to issues of identity and place. In Lexington, Virginia, the site of the memorial of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, the pastoral landscapes of her own childhood harbor half-hidden histories of the Antebellum South. In the series, Battlefields, Mann utilizes vintage cameras with damaged lenses to capture the locations of Civil War battles in an antiquated style. Using a soft-focus or out-of-focus rendering of otherwise innocuous woodland territories, Mann imitates the pictorialist style of the nineteenth-century. The resulting photographs do not so much render the past as they do render Mann’s own personal connection and exploration of that past.

Sally Mann, Battlefields, 2003(fig. 3) Sally Mann, Battlefields, Cold Harbor (Battle), 2003, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | National Gallery of Art, Washington

In her Battlefields series, Mann returns to an early theme in the history of American photography. One of the first wars to be photographed in the United States was the Civil War.[1] Photographers of the nineteenth-century were prohibited from depicting battle scenes by the laborious process and long exposure time it took to produce collodion-on-wet negatives. Instead, they avoided the chaos of a dangerous battlefield and created carefully staged images of camp scenes, empty battlefields, and even dead soldiers.

Like the war photographers, Mann utilizes the nineteenth-century equipment. In Battlefields: Cold Harbor (Battle), 2003 (fig. 3), Mann intentionally photographs the landscape with flawed lenses that create an extra layer of marks, scratches, and blurry corners. These imperfections lend the photograph an aura of antiquity. Mann turns back the clock at Mechanicsville, Virginia to the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor. Although we can’t see any uniformed soldiers outfitted with rifles and bayonets, the white marks that dot the landscape fly by like whizzing bullets across the length of the print. The chaos of battle may be taking place not far beyond the edges of the photograph—and Mann places the viewer in the center of the action. The chaos of the battlefield unsettles an otherwise undisturbed, if not eerie, land. In doing so, Mann attempts to unearth the suppressed histories of the Antebellum South.

Mann attempts to understand the racial trauma embedded in the land that many Southerners, and indeed, the rest of America, may try to forget. In Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie), 1998, (fig. 4), Mann photographed the Tallahatchie River, the site of a Civil Rights-era hate crime. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi by a group of white men after being accused of flirting with a married white woman. His attackers were acquitted, sold their confession to Look Magazine, and the woman who originated the claims later confessed to fabricating crucial details about the event. Till’s mother held an open-casket funeral for her son to expose the world to the epidemic of lynching in the South and the culture of racism that fueled it.

Sally Mann, Deep South, 1998(fig. 4) Sally Mann, Deep South, Untitled (Bridge of Tallahatchie), 1998, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | National Gallery of Art, Washington

The murder of Emmett Till presents a doubly difficult event to photograph because his death has already been politicized through a visual narrative. Till’s mother allowed his body to be photographed and those images to be distributed among black-run newspapers and magazines to bear witness to the racial violence that killed her son. To depict the body of Emmett Till would likely distort and misinterpret the photograph’s original intent. Those who have previously done so have been met with harsh criticism.

In Mann’s landscape of the Tallahatchie, the viewer will find no body. Mann engages with the hate crime through her personal connection to the land. She infuses the Tallahatchie landscape with a narrative, one that cannot be seen as evidence on the land itself—but one in which every Southerner knows and may feel a personal relationship to. The enveloping darkness around the edges of the photograph seem to slowly encroach across the breadth of the river, engulfing every tree, branch, and leaf in the stillness of contemplation. The raindrops that dot the surface of the water highlight the loneliness of the encounter. As Mann takes to the camera in an attempt to understand an event that shaped her experience of living as a white woman in the South, she does so on a solitary journey.

A Thousand Crossings succeeds at immersing the audience into Mann’s world. We as an audience bear witness to her introspection, and in turn feel compelled to turn inwards and examine our own relationship to race, history, and the power of the land we call home. Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA through September 23, 2018, and will be traveling to several other venues across the U.S. and Europe throughout the next year.


[1] Department of Photographs. “Photography and the Civil War, 1861–65.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004).

Vincent Van Gogh: “Off the Wall”

caroline f. riley

van-Gogh-Self-Potrait_1889_1890Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889-1890, detail
image courtesy | Van Gogh Museum

During Van Gogh’s prolific ten year career he produced over two thousand works of art. This number includes nine hundred paintings and one thousand one hundred drawings and sketchings.[1] Despite selling only one work of art during his lifetime, Van Gogh sustains his legacy as one of the most celebrated artists by contemporary society. His unique painterly style and life story has since made his works some of the most replicated in the history of art. Van Gogh prints, jewelry, stationary, kitchenware and luxury items litter museum gift shops and online stores, made readily available for purchase anywhere in the world. This commercialization of fine art becomes a paradox in itself. By assigning an everyday function to these works of art they become an object for use. Thus, losing their artistic significance and becoming another commodity, for disposal. This process was recently expedited on August 3rd, 2018, through a partnership between the clothing company Vans and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The Van Gogh Museum has increasingly sought out opportunities for capital gain outside of the experience of viewing Van Gogh’s works. As stated on the museum’s annual report, “the Van Gogh Museum traditionally secures its revenue from ticket sales, its own events and activities, governmental subsidies, donations from private benefactors and, problematically, partnerships with the business world. To an increasing extent, the museum also relies on commercial activities.”[2] The first floor gift shop offers visitors myriad souvenirs for purchase celebrating their favorite works in the collection. Museum patrons, or any art lover, can now enjoy the works in the collection with a twist: functionality. These entities negate the original purpose of Van Gogh’s work; a purely aesthetic experience.

Vans-x-Van-Gogh-Museum-Capsule-Collection-51Vans x Van Gogh Museum, campaign photograph
image courtesy | Vans

In 2018, The Van Gogh Museum announced its partnership with the popular clothing company Vans to release a line of iconic slip-on sneakers inspired by works in the museum’s collection. Visitor favorites from the museum’s collection such as Skull, Almond Blossom, Sunflowers and Van Gogh’s self-portrait are digitally printed onto the canvas upper of the shoes, packaged, ordered online and shipped right to the consumer’s home. Due to the overwhelming popularity, the collection is currently sold out on the Vans website, but is still available for purchase at select locations and third-party wholesale retailers.

These shoes embody the current trend of bringing fashion and fine art together. The Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration is not the first of its nature. Last year, Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons introduced a collaboration entitled “Masters,” in which iconic examples of Western oil painting were reproduced on the sides of handbags and backpacks. The acquisition of a “Masters” bag offers consumers the opportunity to, in a sense, possess the artwork itself.

The price of the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration is significantly lower than that of “Masters” handbag. However, both of these collaborations alienate consumers from their products in different ways. The “Masters” collaboration estranges potential buyers as a result of the cost. Louis Vuitton is, of course, well known for its astronomical costs, in fact, for the most popular style in the “Masters” collection, clients can expect a $2,800 price tag. However, the Van Gogh Vans alienate the consumer by obscuring the product of Van Gogh’s labor. Both pairings of high art and commercial product divorce consumers from the original artists. The art, the fundamental aspect of the designs themselves, is disguised in the form of another everyday object. The shoes blend into the life of the consumer and the artistry is ignored. The availability of the shoes filters them into the mainstream and they become a trend, and people begin to want them because they are in vogue, not because of their representations of the illustrious career of Van Gogh. Following the pattern of elitism, the shoes themselves transform into symbols of status, and are sought after for what they signify socially.

ob_786abc_louis-vuitton-jeff-koons-masters-campaLouis Vuitton x Jeff Koons, campaign photograph
image courtesy | Louis Vuitton

In 1987, Sunflowers sold at auction for a record $39.3 million dollars to two anonymous bidders.[3] Today, the value has tripled. Cynthia Freeland addresses this issue in the fourth chapter of But is it Art?, writing:

The irony was grotesque in light of [Van Gogh’s] own poverty and despair over being unable to sell works during his lifetime. The thought that a work like the Mona Lisa is ‘priceless’ makes it difficult to see and appreciate as art (when one is lucky enough to get a second to stand before it). Can we ever again see Van Gogh’s works as art rather than as huge dollar signs?[4]

Assigning a monetary value in the tens of millions to a piece of art inevitably changes it in the process. The piece can no longer be assessed on artistic merit alone. A monetary value this high transforms the art into a symbol of status. Thus, this collection of Vans obscures the labor of the artist in favor of the social value they project.

However, the Van Gogh Museum is no stranger to capitalizing on their namesakes’ art and legacy. The museum’s website is extremely transparent about their development strategies. Their mission statement, outlined in their strategic plan for 2018-2020, reads, “The Van Gogh Museum makes the life and work of Vincent van Gogh and the art of his time accessible and reaches as many people as possible in order to enrich and inspire them.” Directly below the mission, the museum’s core values states, “The Van Gogh Museum is leading, excellent and inspiring. These core values function as an ethical compass and are at the heart of corporate culture at the museum.”[5]

Absent from this mission statement and core values are any type of learning outcomes for the visitor. The art is indeed accessible, boasting a seventeen euro ticket cost (free for minors), as a result of the relationship it shares with corporate culture. The branding of these works of art in the collection grant recognition, thus more “accessibility” to the visitor or everyday consumer. However, the focus of the museum has shifted from a place of learning and meditation to a place of consumption, as shown by their ever popular collaborations. A positive museum experience is no longer about the connections formed between the art and visitors during their trip, it becomes about the photos they took of themselves with works and the items accumulated in the gift shop. The museum visit can not stand on its own as a positive experience, it must be supplemented with tangible takeaways in order to feel meaningful.

44e08022-51e5-4ac7-8bb9-478e352af8b2-7661-amsterdam-skip-the-line-combo-city-canal-cruise-heineken-experience-and-van-gogh-museum-01The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands
image courtesy | MyLittleAdventure

By giving these works of art an everyday use, what was once available to only an elite demographic––through the purchase of expensive oil paintings––is now attainable by all. This accessibility is inspiring, but the methods in practice are questionable. Distribution of items through e-commerce distances the consumer from the artistic nature of the product even further, as they can purchase merchandise from anywhere in the world without having to step into the museum, or see the original piece. Connections between visitors and art no longer happen in a gallery space, they take place on a screen; thus, removing the museum from the experience altogether.

The purpose of these items makes the artistic aspect of them easier for people to ignore. Instead of being a work of art that makes the viewer feel and connect emotionally, the object becomes just another pair of dirty sneakers in the back of a closet or a broken coffee mug. On the subject of the culture industry, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write, “For consumers the use value of art, its essence, is a fetish, and the fetish––the social valuation which they mistake for the merit of works of art––becomes its only use value, the only quality they enjoy.”[6] Due to the popularity of Van Gogh following his death and the availability of these mass produced items, the actual works of art become objectified, and fetishized. The meaning of the artwork apart from the function is void. When art transforms into a commodity, people reject it. The meaning becomes secondary to the “use value” of the object. It is no longer an object to meditate upon, it is something to have and dispose of. x Van Gogh Museum, campaign photograph
image courtesy | Vans

Upon the release of the collection, Vans made a statement conceptualizing the purpose of the collaboration between their brand and the work of Van Gogh stating “By uniting Van Gogh’s iconic artworks with iconic Vans styles, our partnership brings Vincent’s art “Off The Wall” and into the world to a new audience outside the museum.”[7] The goal of the partnership is to make Van Gogh’s art accessible to patrons who perhaps cannot travel to Amsterdam to see his works. This is a wonderful mission, as visitors should be able to enjoy these works of art for the emotions they trigger and the empathy they elicit. However, the commodification and commercialization of these works is troubling. The commercialization of these paintings nulls them of their original meaning and context. Monetary value replaces emotional value as the works are disassociated from their art historical context, and given yet another price tag. Vincent Van Gogh was not an interior designer, fashion designer or a shoe maker, he was an artist who wanted to depict the world as he saw it. These reappropriations of his work detract substantially from that meaning and turn them into an object completely separate from his original intention. Why is the work not enough in an aesthetic sense? The message that these companies are sending to consumers is that art is not enough in its meaning, it has to have a functional objective. Assigning a “use value” to these works of art creates an entirely different object in the process.

Select proceeds from the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration will contribute to future funding and preservation of the works in the museum.[8] The museum’s annual report boasts upwards of two million visitors annually since 2016, making it the most visited museum in the Netherlands, and one of the most visited museums in the world. Ticket revenues, special programming, private donations and e-commerce generate sufficient profit for the museum. During his lifetime, just over a century ago, Van Gogh experienced very little recognition and success. He was deeply discouraged by the lack of support for his work. Rather than benefiting a huge corporation such as Vans, Louis Vuitton or The Van Gogh Museum, the true spirit of Van Gogh’s work can be upheld by supporting artists that are producing work today.

note about the author

caroline f. riley holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and psychology from the university of massachusetts, amherst, and is currently working towards a master’s degree in modern and contemporary art, criticism, and theory. her professional interests include improving museum education, and working to ensure museum accessibility for everyone, regardless of demographic. she previously held a museum education position at the institute of contemporary art in boston, ma.


[1] “Vincent Van Gogh on Artsy.” Artsy, accessed August 18, 2018,

[2] Van Gogh Museum, 2017 Annual Report, accessed August 18, 2018,

[3] Francis Klines, “Van Gogh Sets Auction Record,” New York Times, March 31, 1987.

[4] Cynthia Freeland, But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 107.

[5] Van Gogh Museum, 2018-2020 Strategic Plan, accessed  August 18, 2018,

[6] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1944), 94-137

[7] “Vans Partners with the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam.” Vans USA, accessed August 18, 2018,

[8] Ibid.

SEM TÍTULO Republished

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SEM TÍTULO has exciting news to share: we have been republished by an outside source!

The Arrival Magazine, an online culture publication founded on the streets of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has taken our article Mona Wu: Apolitical Politics and republished it for their audience. It is The Arrival’s goal to spread the contributors’ vision and passion for art and culture. Their publications take myriad forms: “flash fiction stories, poetry, editorials, restaurant reviews, fashion columns, podcasts, short films, and any other creative exploration that can be tapped in [Winston-Salem] and beyond.”

You can view the article in its original context here, or on The Arrivalhere.

Maria and Nicholas are confident this is the first of many opportunities for the duo to have their writing disseminated further.