Sally Mann at the Peabody Essex Museum

Some of them glow, others are brooding and still others, bleak.

But all of them offer the viewer a haunting emotional connection.

For more than 40 years, photographer Sally Mann has been mining the American South for universal themes. Now the National Gallery of Art and the Peabody Essex Museum have assembled an exhibition of 115 of her photographs for exploration by the public.

“She has an incredible ability to use the materials of her art to create meaning,” says Sara Kennel of PEM, who co-created the exhibition with her counterpart at the National Gallery. “Central to it all is that she’s dealing with big subjects like life, death, race, love, childhood, memory and history – and those are the themes in the exhibition.”

And what better setting for them all than her native South – Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi – starting in the 1980s?

“In the culture wars in the 1990s she produced incredibly beautiful and provocative pictures of children that came to define her career,” she says. “She was experimenting greatly with subject matter – she seemed out of sync at first, but now her work seems very prophetic.”

Her work with her children courted controversy at first, but eventually gained a wide appreciation. “She probes childhood, and a lot of it’s staged, and certainly it’s not a Hallmark card,” she says. “Her childhood work is different.”

In the 1990s, she began to experiment with photographic processes, using a large, 8” x 10” format camera, and then 19th-century collodion wet plate negatives.

“It was all done in a portable darkroom, the same as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner,” she says. “It’s a messy process that’s subject to a lot of flaws, but she actually cultivates those accidents and uses them in her final image.”

The exhibition is organized into five sections: Family, The Land, Last Measure, Abide with Me and What Remains. It starts with the photos of family from the 1980s, continues with Southern landscapes, Civil War battlefields, begins to examine slavery and segregation, and returns at last to family.

Throughout it all is an implied ache culled from metaphors for the region’s violence, ruin and potential rebirth.

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is on display now at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It opens at PEM on June 30 and runs through Sept. 23.

For more, go here.

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