Body of evidence: Mann fleshes out skin and bones

Sally Mann, "Hephaestus." Gelatine silver prints from collodion wet-plate negatives, 2008.
Sally Mann, "Hephaestus." Gelatin silver print from collodion wet-plate negatives, 2008.

"It was beautiful while it lasted," photographer Sally Mann says after inadvertently washing away an image of her daughter, which she had just made using a long exposure and wet collodion plate process. The moment occurs in a video presentation accompanying the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' epic exhibition, "Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit." But the lament resonates through Mann's entire body of work.

Comprising over 100 images and spanning Mann's career from the late 1970s to the present, the VMFA show is the most comprehensive presentation of the Virginia photographer's work ever displayed in the U.S. What sets it apart from a standard retrospective, though, is "The Flesh and the Spirit" is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, focusing on Mann's repeated use of the physical body to reflect upon the intersection of temporality and the metaphysical.

The show opens and closes with Mann's most recent work, punctuated by two grids of self-portraits, which alone are worth the price of admission. Here Mann uses the inherent flaws that characterize the wet collodion process to upend vanity, creating a series of racially ambiguous and androgynous images that often recall 19th century post-mortem portraits. Each photograph is riveting but when arranged collectively into tiled mosaics, the variations in tone, composition, and details become dominant, all but eliminating self-reference and taking the work into the realm of abstraction.

Mann's ongoing project, "Proud Flesh," which studies her husband's physical decline from a muscle-wasting disease, follows the first grid of self-portraits. As in all of her work, Mann fuses her photographic skills–- ranging from sensitive observation of light to printmaking virtuosity–- with her interest in history and literature to create images that seem iconic and rich with mythic importance. "Proud Flesh" is balanced by "Thin Skin" at the conclusion of the exhibition, in which Mann photographs her own aging neck and torso, almost as if to create an alliance with her husband's deterioration.

Interestingly, the exhibition pays scant attention to Mann's best-known series, "Immediate Family," and omits other projects, like "At Twelve," altogether, opting for more evocative, less narrative work. At the heart of the show are photographs from Mann's Civil War battlefield series. These somber landscapes lack figures but are rife with ghosts and speak to the ultimate end of our physical being.

By poetically probing bodily frailty and death, Mann highlights the exquisite evanescence of life–- it was beautiful while it lasted.

"Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit" is on view through January 23 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, Richmond. 804-204-2704.

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