By Hannah Denham
Photos of local natural treasures House Mountain and the Maury River now adorn the walls of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where visitors can see the Rockbridge area through the lens of local photographer Sally Mann.
The National Gallery of Art website described “A Thousand Crossings” as an exhibit that “considers how Mann’s relationship with this land has shaped her work and how the legacy of the South – as both homeland and graveyard, refuge and battleground – continues to permeate American identity.”
Ed Bordett, a Fincastle painter and printmaker whose work is displayed at Lexington gallery Artists in Cahoots, said Mann sets a good example for the local artists’ community.
“She proved that you don’t have to be in New York or a big city to accomplish something like this,” Bordett said. “She’s a rockstar.”
Mann published a memoir, “Hold Still,” in 2015, a national bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award. The book is a multimedia exploration into her family’s past, her journey as a photographer, and the impact of Southern history and culture on her identity and work.
In “Hold Still,” Mann addresses the controversial public discussion over the intimate and often nude photographs of her children in her 1992 book “Immediate Family.”
“I never realized when you become famous, how much fame and criticism you can get,” Bordett said. “I think part of her success is that she pushed the boundaries and edges.”
The exhibit includes 115 photographs, some of which are on display for the first time. Viewers wander through the five chronological sections of the exhibit: “Family,” “The Land,” “Last Measure,” “Abide with Me,” and “What Remains.”
Mann could not be reached for comment.
The exhibit begins with “Family,” including Mann’s early photography of her three children at the family’s Maury River summer cabin during the 1980s.
Marysue Forrest, owner of The Bookery in Lexington, said she feels a connection to Mann’s photography.
“It certainly does stir up some emotions, which I guess is the purpose of most artists, to get a reaction,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that she stayed here and stayed faithful to this area.”
The second section, “The Land,” focuses on abandoned landscapes in the South, and “Last Measure” captures Civil War battlefields. Though Mann took the photos in the 1990s, she used a technique to develop them in a 19th century style.
“I like some of the work she does that reflects back on historical printmaking, as well as the southern themes,” Bordett said.
Katharine Smeallie, who studied film at Hollins College, now Hollins University, when Mann was also a student there, visited the exhibit last Sunday with her husband and two daughters.
Mann’s work captures the troubled racial history of a small southern town, said Smeallie, who lives in Alexandria.
Smeallie visited Lexington for a weekend a few years ago, soon after nine people were killed in the 2015 shooting at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C. She said she was struck by the number of Confederate flags in the area, especially behind the visitor’s center in Lexington.
“I really found her pictures of landscapes in the South kind of eerie,” she said.
Mann builds on this southern landscape foundation with the fourth section of the exhibit, “Abide with Me,” a series on race. The photographs focus on historical places of slave rebellions, 19th century African-American churches and Mann’s personal relationship with Virginia “Gee-Gee” Carter, the African-American woman who worked as a maid for her family for 50 years.
In the final section of the exhibit, “What Remains,” Mann explores themes of deterioration and vulnerability of the human body through intimate portraits of her family.
While Mann’s master’s degree from Hollins is in creative writing, she has more than 40 years of experience with self-taught photography. In her most recent book of the same name, “A Thousand Crossings,” Mann said the best way to describe her work is “writing with photography.”
“There are a lot of people from out of town that are connected to her work,” said Forrest, the book store owner. “I think in general we’re all proud of her success. She’s got local fans as well as fans all over the world.”