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Sally Mann's photographs at Reynolds Gallery offer a chance to observe the evolution of an artist.

Captured Memories


The first thing that strikes me as I enter Reynolds Gallery to observe Sally Mann's photographs is how large they are. Having only seen her more recent landscape works in print, I am unprepared for their sheer size. Averaging 3 by 4 feet, one cannot help but be absorbed into these hauntingly beautiful views of Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. That absorption, however, is interrupted by the "flaws" on the prints. Flecks of dirt, hairs, scratches, light leaks, dark corners — all these imperfections are purposefully induced by Mann. Certainly with today's technology, one can readily produce a seamless picture. But this is not Mann's intention. These photographs are not about the land itself, but rather the memory and history that such a setting evokes.

Mann employs an antique 8-by-10 camera and dabbles in 19th-century photographic techniques such as the wet-collodion process. Along with the intentional flaws and black-and-white film, one could easily mistake these for Victorian pictures, particularly the landscapes of Roger Fenton or Francis Frith. Mann's technique is purposefully vintage and very much in keeping with the subject of her series. As we Richmonders know all too well, the South is often defined by memory, turmoil and the past.

Even without the titles of the two landscape series, "Deep South" and "Mother Land," it is evident that these are Southern views. Mann's South, however, does not elicit warm, fuzzy memories of Southern living. Church picnics and lemonade on the porch are replaced with kudzu-laden trees, steamy lazy rivers and lonely Corinthian columns. Despite the fecund plant life, there is a palpable sense of loss and decay.

One untitled photograph is particularly eerie. It depicts a wide, slow-meandering river amidst rocks and trees, but the print has been so overexposed that the idyllic scene is transformed into a bleached-out, flattened, otherworldly abstraction. The loss here seems to stem from an atomic flash, yet the results remain stunningly evocative.

Upstairs, one can find 13 examples of Mann's older photographic series, "Immediate Family." These, of course, are the famous works of Mann's children, often posing nude or seminude in their Lexington setting. The photographs portray children — bloodied, swollen, soiled — as disturbingly beautiful. Knowing that her children are grown now and clothed, there is a particular poignancy in these works that speaks to a more personal memory and loss. This poignancy reaches its fullest, if more generalized, fruition in the landscape series. The blood, tears and sweat, so blatantly depicted in the "Immediate Family" series, are now rendered more subtly in the landscape itself. Mann's places are ones with experience.

There seems to be a natural artistic maturation in process here. Because Reynolds Gallery offers both Mann's better-known images upstairs and less familiar ones down, one has the unique opportunity to move through time and watch the photographer evolve. Mann has stated that the landscapes are not that different from her family pictures, noting, "They're backgrounds, sort of, for those pictures." Somehow, though, I cannot see her son, Emmett, diving into these waters or daughter, Jessie, flitting across these meadows. Mann has conveyed human sorrow, loss and memory through the land itself. In her artistic evolution, humans have become obsolete.

Initially, I found Mann's photographs of her children more interesting than the landscapes, but the more I think about her views of the land, the more I realize just how far she has come as an artist. One must work harder at seeing it, but Mann's shift in focus has been subtly, yet successfully completed. S

Sally Mann will discuss her life and career at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday, May 10, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $3-$5. Call 340-1405 for

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