A strong current coursing through the history of photography is the desire to capture the perfect moment. Patiently, a photographer awaits the drift of a cloud, the flicker of an expression, or the movement of a shadow before snapping the shutter. And yet we now collectively find ourselves in a perfectly imperfect moment. While the spring of 2020 forced us all to pause, brutal acts rooted in long-standing racism nevertheless continued unabated. And now as communities begin to open up after months of coronavirus lockdown, we are in the midst of another sort of opening up, one in which painful truths are being voiced and exposed. These narratives are not new, but rather the stories of generations that finally—belatedly—are beginning to be understood by many with growing empathy. Still, others avert their eyes, refuse to listen, or remain skeptical, confirming that change does not come easy.
In such a charged moment, I think of this photograph from Sally Mann’s Deep South series for the way it embraces imperfection and acknowledges the historical tangling of beauty and pain. The idyllic southern landscape, with its trees bathed in sunlight and cascading underbrush, is interrupted by inky droplets splashed across its surface. Likely the result of spilled collodion (a syrupy chemical that had been used commonly in 19th-century photography to produce wet-plate negatives), the drips reflect the marred southern—and, more broadly, American—landscape. Tranquil and scenic, the landscape also is witness to the systemic racism that stubbornly has persisted far beyond the Emancipation Proclamation. Whereas most photographers avoid the blemished negative, Mann cultivated it, recognizing the impossibility of photographing a flawless southern landscape, where the bloodshed of slavery and war and Jim Crow and criminal injustice has seeped deeply into its soil. By allowing the drips to spoil the seemingly pristine landscape, Mann at once declares her fierce love for the South, while acknowledging that it is a complicated affair—one in which indelible mistakes have been made. The photograph is less about capturing the perfect moment than coming to terms with the past and its contemporary reverberations.
Three Drips poignantly reminds us that we must grasp the fullness of our history and appreciate the acute need for serious, sustained scrutiny of the darkness. It implores us to acknowledge the flaws, keep them within the frame, and explore their depths. Admission of mistakes—personal and institutional, past and current—demonstrates a belief in and willingness to work toward a more perfect union. Museums must participate in this reckoning. As professed experts in the art of looking, we need to peer within to see bitter truths that uncomfortably sit alongside all of the beauty.
Collodion—the substance spattered across Mann’s negative—offers an encouraging sign. Used on Civil War battlefields to bind soldiers’ wounds, it suggests that hidden within the photograph’s dripped imperfections exists the capacity for healing. Ignored, the wound festers; treated, there is hope for recovery and the possibility of a future, more perfect, moment.