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Friday, December 3, 2010

Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit

More than just an exhibition of sublime photographs, Sally Mann’s The Flesh and the Spirit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts also reveals the measure of the remarkable person behind the extraordinary images and the courage and conviction with which she operates. 

Mann burst on the scene in the ‘80s with her achingly beautiful, honest, yet provocative portraits of her children. The VMFA show includes some of these early images, but focuses primarily on her new work. Mortality is the underlying theme. It’s a natural subject for someone passing the half-century mark and it has particular resonance for Mann given her husband’s diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. 

She turns her lens unflinchingly on him, recording his once vital body now showing the ravages of the disease that will eventually kill him. They are elegiac images, thrumming with the sexual pull between sitter and artist. Shot by a female these beautiful nudes aren’t prurient but stand as Mann’s unsentimental, yet poignant love letter to her husband and their conjugal bond. Further exploring the theme of mortality, Mann also turns the camera on herself recording her neck, chest and face without vanity and unflatteringly (in real life Mann is a striking woman) capturing wrinkles, bags and blemishes that are the souvenirs of advancing age. These are powerful works. Indeed, the opening piece, a series of self-portraits on glass got my “best in show” award.

A number of years ago, an escaped convict was shot and killed by the police on the Manns’ farm. After his body was taken away, Mann went to the spot where he died and found a “chocolate syrup-like” pool of congealing blood. She reached out to touch it—if there’s one thing Mann isn’t, it’s squeamish—the blood seemed to retract away from her hand as if “the earth took a sip.” 

It got her thinking about those places where thousands have died. And so she set up a darkroom in the back of her Suburban and began to travel around the south shooting Civil War battlegrounds. She decided to employ the wet plate collodion process used between the 1850s and 1880s (so what contemporary CIvil War photographers would have used). The process is both arcane and challenging involving cumbersome equipment and various toxic chemicals. 

Photographing outside means the work is always subject to conditions (wind, dust, a falling leaf or twig) beyond Mann’s control. She welcomes these serendipitous incursions which bring visual interest to the work. In some prints the image is pitted by flecks of light, created by dust motes on the print, others have ripples radiating across them from how the chemicals were applied and in still others the image seems eaten away. 

Mann is interested in capturing the unseen spirit of the place and producing grave images that seem to whisper of the enormity of what occurred there. The process requires a long exposure time (six minutes), which means many things can happen to affect the outcome. It also means that with living subjects, you get those penetrating stares of sitters who must remain still for the exposure’s duration, or blurry effects if they happen to move. In the excellent documentary, What Remains, on view at the end of the exhibition, we see Mann pose with glazed eyes for a self-portrait straining not to blink. She describes the sensation of posing like this as being almost in a state of beatification.

The large format wet plate collodion photographs of her children are haunting. Especially placed in a room adjacent to the one containing her early color photographs of the (much younger) children gamboling in the river by the Manns' cabin. Looking at these closely cropped head shots with their corroded looking surfaces, one immediately thinks of death and decay, certainly unsettling given the children’s youth and beauty and the fact that their mother took the pictures. But "unsettling" adds weight and interest and the approach is in keeping with Mann’s exploration of mortality. 

Given Mann’s flintiness it was perhaps natural that she would move beyond this metaphoric treatment to the very extreme tactic of photographing real decomposing corpses at the University of Tennessee “body farm”. These photographs are not for the faint of heart. Hard as they are to look at, you have to admire Mann for looking death straight in the eye.

Watching What Remains which chronicles Mann’s working process and her near-perfect life in rural Virginia, I was struck by what a contrast this full-color, unedited world is from the restrained and plaintive one Mann creates. It’s a wonderfully revealing portrait of an artist with many scenes that expose Mann’s character and mettle. She is likable, articulate and down to earth, an ordinary woman making extraordinary art. 

One vignette stood out for me. Mann is taking one of the affecting photographs of her husband that are at the beginning of the show. In the real life scene captured on film, the gravitas of the resulting print is completely absent. It’s a funny scene. They’re in the bathroom; he’s wrapped a navy blue towel around his waist that keeps revealing a little too much as he bends to clip his toenails. She wants their Greyhound in the picture. They joke around as she smears bacon grease on her husband's leg for the dog to lick. She makes sure the stitches closing a large wound on the dog's flank are visible. Filmed in color it’s such an unexceptional, even banal scene of the easy interaction between a long-married couple. But in her hands it will be transformed into a profoundly moving image far removed from the everyday circumstances of its creation.


  1. I haven't found the time to get to the exhibit yet, but I definitely need to get to it. I only recently learned about Mann, and you gave a great synopsis on her techniques and influences.

    Just the other day I was reminded of her when I took a picture of a dead deer (http://fluidglass.com/2010/12/stepping-into-the-shoes-of-sally-mann/) as it just seemed like something she would do, but I've come to realize that some of the most powerful images out there deal with death. It's hard to compete with those that Mann puts out.

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