Untitled #4, Antietam. Gelatin silver enlargement print from 8-by-10-inch collodion wet-plate, 2001
Sally Mann stood in a room at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts contemplating a wall of images of herself. Other visitors coming out of the multigallery exhibit of Mann photographs, titled “The Flesh and The Spirit,” noticed the unassuming artist standing in the middle of this final room. They clustered behind and on the periphery, watching her looking at the gritty array of her portraits.
After some full minutes, she remarked to a VMFA assistant that she’d never seen all these pictures together on a wall before today. Printed on black glass in a format known as ambrotype, the photographs hadn't been shown before this exhibit, so she'd only viewed them spread on the floor or a table. Seeing them here, she was considering how two of the corner images appeared in correlation to the other.
I witnessed this exchange during the VMFA's preview of the show, which, while not a retrospective, offers in some cases previously unseen glimpses of several of her well-known series of works — concerning her husband and children, Civil War battlefields, and more — and varying approaches, including platinum prints from the 1970s and color Polaroid still lifes from the early 1980s.
Here, too, are previously unseen color prints from Mann’s work at the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center, known as “The Body Farm,” where the effects of open-air deterioration on medical cadavers are studied. I wouldn’t recommend seeing this section if you’ve eaten. Looking at a quite-dead woman in a red tracksuit upon the ground as if she’d chosen to rest is jarring. There is beauty among these images, but you need to have the stomach to look. After all, this is what we are: flesh on the bone.
In a talk before we media types got to wander around, Mann gave great credit to the VMFA’s modern and contemporary art curator, John Ravenal, for finding the nuances and echoes from one set of images to the other. “Now you walk through and say, ‘Oh, of course this goes together,' ” she said. “But I was befuddled. I was pulling things out from under my bed and out of closests. I had no idea,” she said, laughing. “I don’t have an archive.”
The array of images clusters together death and decay alongside youth and vitality. Mann, who studied under Ansel Adams, doesn’t consider herself a good photographer. “You look at my negatives and they’re terrible,” she shrugged. “But, if I may be so immodest, my technique in printing makes an otherwise mediocre picture a great print."
VMFA director Alex Nyerges said this show was overdue and reflected a new commitment to showing photography at the museum. He also noted that Mann was a 1982 recipient of a VMFA grant — “And it saved my ass,” she declared from her side of the auditorium. Later she said, “If I’d not gotten that grant when I did, I would’ve been waitressing — of course, I ended up doing a little of that, too, later.” She added that institutions are cutting back or eliminating grants, “and that the Virginia Museum still does that is to their great credit.”
(Mann probably didn’t know it, but today was the filing deadline for those exact grants — so here’s wishing luck to the applicants.)
It was after her talk that Mann found herself meditiating on the wall of self. After greeting her, I apologized if I was interrupting because I sensed she was on a mission. “Oh, not really, I’m just wandering around,” she said.
Her Civil War battlefield images are as powerful to me as the ones Brady or Gardner took with broken and bloated bodies. (PBS is currently re-airing Ken Burns’s Civil War, BTW.) I was in a high-school club that went to these battlefields, and her visual interpretation of Antietam and Manassas using 150-year-old photographic techniques reflects how I experienced them in my imagination as my history teacher Steve Cormier narrated our visits to these sites. And I told her so.
She thanked me and said, “I didn’t set out to do that. I just wanted to see what would happen. I shot most of those on pretty, sunny days, and that’s how they came out.”
Sally Mann’s pictures get under the skein of perception. They reveal all that remains.