CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Poetic process: Exploring Mann's photographic reveries

 "Technically, I'm not all that good. My negatives aren't that good because I just never follow the rules"– not exactly words one would expect to hear from Sally Mann, the artist Time proclaimed "America's Best Photographer" in 2001. But when interviewed shortly before the Festival of the Photograph, the Lexington native acknowledged the artistry of her printing and pointed out, "That's why collodium is the perfect medium for me, because imperfection is part of the rule."

Mann established an international reputation with her 1980s-era series, "Immediate Family," that featured poetic gelatin silver images of her children that are both representational and suggestive of narrative. Since then, however, she has traveled along a trajectory toward ever more abstract image making, in which the process is as essential as the subject. For her current Second Street Gallery exhibition, "The Given," Mann moves her large-format camera into the intimacy of her studio for a number of studies, each showcasing her embrace of accidents in creating evocative compositions.

In the main gallery, Mann presents a series of oversized extreme close-ups of her children's now-adult faces– perhaps partly as a sly response to those who lament her shift away from "Immediate Family" (how tiresome for an artist to be asked constantly to perpetuate past work). Devoid of context, the subjects' identities and genders become fluid within Mann's tight framing, yielding landscapes of features made abstract by the antique collodium process, where specks of dust can become like shooting stars.

Particularly riveting is "Virginia #37," in which only the eyes and bridge of the nose of her daughter are identifiable. The rest of the face transforms into a luminous white veil that seems somehow botanical and liquid all at once.

The main gallery also premieres 13 one-of-a-kind ambrotypes. Each reflective glass plate depicts a simple geometric still life– perhaps a round black walnut fruit on a tabletop or a knife balanced on a wedge– made dark and wondrous by the work's complex surface. Mann's adaptation of this 19th century photographic process imbues her minimal compositions with an atmospheric depth that's easy to get lost in.

Meanwhile, the Dové Gallery serves as a reliquary for images from Mann's "Matter Lent" series, which reverently and non-skittishly examines the decomposed remains of her dead greyhound, Eva. The flaws and immediate decay introduced by the photographic process into these images of bones, hide, and claws offer an added layer of poignancy to Mann's meditation on the inevitable transience of loved life.

Sally Mann's exhibition, "The Given," is on view at Second Street Gallery through August 18. 115 Second St. SE (in the Charlottesville City Center for the Arts). 977-7284.