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The Evolution of Mann

New exhibits chart Lexington photographer's unflinching gaze.

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Sally Mann's “Untitled (Self Portrait)” is one of the standout pieces of photography included in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' major new Mann exhibition, “The Flesh and the Spirit.”
  • Sally Mann's “Untitled (Self Portrait)” is one of the standout pieces of photography included in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' major new Mann exhibition, “The Flesh and the Spirit.”

If, like Southern authors, Southern artists require not only an appropriate address but also an astute awareness of time relative to the region's mythic past or uncertain future, then Sally Mann fits the bill.  

Living in Lexington, the place of her birth, Mann holds her connections to family and the land dear. During the course of her career, she's tenderly photographed her children and husband, her farm, Southern battlefields, even the remains of a beloved pet, as contemplations of love and loss. Through her Faulkneresque lens, conflict brews under handsome surfaces, as in the inevitable pull of adulthood on her delicate children, or the memory of the blood spilled on the Southern landscape. The flux of time is ever present.

Two significant Mann exhibitions in Richmond offer an unprecedented window to the artist Time magazine called “America's Best Photographer” in 2001. The Virginia Museum of Fine Art's “Sally Mann: the Flesh and the Spirit” is a major installation of photographs of the human figure and figure-related imagery, while Reynolds Gallery's “Afterlight” features landscapes, many of which have never been exhibited. (A third show at Page Bond Gallery, “Sally Mann: Collection,” will also feature selected works by the photographer until Dec. 4)

 A large exhibition that features photographs from numerous series produced during the last 25 years, “The Flesh and the Spirit” at VMFA presents an earthy oeuvre of transitory beauty.

Images from one of Mann's earliest and best-known bodies of work featuring her three young children demonstrate the artist's accomplished control of composition and printing. As in “River Dance,” which captures her son while he wades thigh-deep in a river and dramatically gestures to his sister as she balances on a tire tube, Mann exploits the setting to create a mesmerizing effect of vulnerability against vitality. Visually enveloping her children with moving water and an imposing rock face is a move that exemplifies a Mann trademark: provocation and tension wrapped in a poetic package.

In more recent years, Mann has loosened technical control considerably while she's used a view camera and the antiquated collodion process, which involves a wet photographic plate and limited development time — a recipe for unpredictable, painterly results. The process has inspired two types of imagery that have recently dominated Mann's work. One is epic landscape in which texture and atmosphere are given special attention, and the other is figure close-ups in which faces and other body parts of herself and family members take on sculptural qualities.

In both exhibitions, imperfections from the process add a romantic veil of age to her direct gaze — a gaze that sometimes falls on difficult subjects. As seen in “The Flesh and The Spirit,” Mann's unflinching attention to decaying human corpses photographed at a forensic center known as the Body Farm may challenge even those experienced in such matters. Equally as confrontational but easier to view are her extreme close-ups of living subjects, which produce haunting and memorable death-mask-like images that seem to breathe via glassy eyes.

For Reynolds Gallery's “Afterlight,” a title that refers to fading natural light captured in these landscapes, Mann presents large vistas laden with narrative possibilities. Imperfections from her photographic process not only suggest the patina of age, but also become integral to the compositions. In one of her untitled photographs an overexposed landscape is barely noticeable behind the random, dominating markings left by her wet plate.

For this show Mann printed for the first time 12 images from her “Deep South” series shot during the late '90s. To deal with the visual complexities of these 12, she printed them roughly half the size of the others from the same series, yet she accomplishes similar sweeping effects. Reminiscent of Clarence John Laughlin's photographic series “Ghosts Along the Mississippi,” Mann's imagery is populated with live oaks, swamps, architectural ruins and other picturesque images that border on clichAc.  

In Mann's hands, these fields and craggy enclaves seem more the manifestations of human history than geology and climate. Each site seems visibly marked by the generations that have lived and trod there. As in her swamp image “Bones,” in which a few sandy footprints are the only sign of human presence, Mann reminds us of our own ghosts that stick with us like the stagnant water of that swamp.

Mann's imagery carries a weight that seems separate from the romantic veil given over by photographic technique or the large scale of her prints. They inspire viewers to dig deep, to visualize what lies beneath the handsome surface, and to imagine like a southerner. S

“Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit” will run at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, through Jan 23. 340-1400.

“Sally Mann: Afterlight” can be seen at the Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., through Dec. 23. 355-6553.

“Sally Mann: Collection” will run at Page Bond Gallery, 1625 W. Main St., through Dec. 4. 359-3633.

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