Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings

I went to the Getty on the closing day of the exhibition Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, which I had been meaning to see since it opened. That I waited until the last possible moment to see something I had wanted to see for months says something about where I am right now.

I became aware of Sally Mann through Immediate Family (1992), the photographs of her children that first shone a spotlight on Mann and her work. Soon after, I happened upon the documentary What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (2008) and, through that, discovered some of her more recent work. I savored her memoir, Hold Still (2015), on a train trip several years ago. But there is something about seeing the breadth of Mann’s work in one exhibition, tying together family and place and history (of both family and place) that made me think about it differently. What previously had felt disjointed to me (children, aging bodies, dead bodies, landscapes) now felt like one cohesive body of work illuminating, ultimately, Mann herself—what she loves, what she fears, what she worries over, the way a dog worries a bone.

In the past year or two, I’ve been letting my hair grow. It’s longer now than it’s ever been before, so long that it easily becomes matted underneath. On the surface, it looks okay, but it’s masking a huge mat of hair that I have to brush out every night. Brushing out the mat of hair reminds me of carding wool. And the only time I’ve ever carded wool was in an art class I took when I was 5 years old. Forty years have passed, and I still remember the feeling of carding wool and watching it be spun into yarn that I could make a little swatch with. Forty years and every night I am back in my 5-year-old self, feeling the pleasure of untangling a mess and making it right.

Lately, I’ve felt like my life has become matted, and I need to spend time carding it, untangling the mess. On the surface, it looks fine. But underneath, there are lingering questions: What do I care about? What keeps me up at night? What is the through line of my work? What do these projects say about me? And what am I trying to say? How is the environment I’m living in shaping me, for better or worse? How can I get to some kind of singularity of focus, some essential truth that blocks out everything else, the way the moon blocks the sun during a total eclipse?

I recognize now that there are times in my life when I have been knitting—producing something every day. And there are other times when I’ve been spinning—working toward a goal with alacrity and purpose. And then there are times when I’ve found myself with a mound of raw wool to be carded. It is so easy, in these times, to distract myself. It is so easy to sit down in the evening and binge whatever show everybody is talking about, or stare at my phone, refreshing Twitter and Instagram over and over, until it’s time to go to bed. It is so much harder to see the potential in that raw wool, and to have the patience to card it.