There are 102 Sally Mann self-portraits in “Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit,” which recently closed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. No matter: At the end of the exhibition, I still didn’t know what Mann looks like.
Mann’s self-portraits, which both opened and closed the VMFA show, are two of the three guideposts of the exhibition. I discussed the third in the first part of my review of “The Flesh and The Spirit” as I struggled to understand what Mann’s pictures of Civil War battlefields were doing in an exhibition the museum presented as being about Mann’s pictures of the human body. Yes, thousands of people died on those battlefields, but the idea that Civil War battlefields are imbued with a ghostly spirit of some kind — and that Mann captured that — is a romantic, even gothic, spiritualist stretch. Once I moved past that, I came to see Mann’s battlefields as the key to the exhibition: I wrote that the battlefield pictures are about how Mann focusing less on showing her subjects as recognizable people and instead focused on them (and herself) as topographic possibility.
Think of “The Flesh and The Spirit” as the exhibition that documents Mann’s response to the ‘is-it-child-porn?’ criticisms and other thorny questions that kicked up after “Immediate Family” was published and exhibited in the early 1990s. Those black-and-white pictures — semi-represented here by a dozen concurrent and thematically similar pictures from Mann’s “Family Color” series — showed Mann’s three children at play, bathing, suffering childhood injuries and the like. Furthermore, in many of the pictures in “Immediate Family,” Emmett, Jessie and Virginia Mann are immediately recognizable, child stars gelatin-silver-print style.
In the years since, I’ve wondered if Mann’s children were too recognizable in “Immediate Family,” if it was fair of Mann to imprint her children with a form of celebrity that would be with them for the rest of their lives. “The Flesh and The Spirit” suggests that sometime after “Immediate Family” and “Family Color” that Mann had similar thoughts, at least when it comes to the work she’s chosen to make most available for exhibition. [Notable, possibly revealing: The VMFA presented none of the "Family Color" images for press use. Correction: Due to my inability to properly use a computer, this is wrong. The VMFA made available one "Family Color" image.]
The suggestion is clearest in Mann’s “What Remains” series, shot in 2004 and exhibited widely since. Installed at the VMFA near Mann’s battlefields, ten pictures from “What Remains” provide 50-inches-by-40-inches close-ups of details of the faces of Mann’s children. The photographs are facio-topographies of a sort: None of the people in the pictures is recognizable. None of the pictures shows a subjects entire face. (Obviously: Representing the subject isn’t the point here.) The faces aren’t quite ghostlike, but the combination of extreme-close-ups printed large plus a hazy ethereality turn them into near-landscapes. [Image: Mann, Jessie #34, 2004.]
Mann continues this exploration with self-portraits she shot in 2006-07 (at top) and in a series of self-portraits that close the VMFA show, titled “Thin Skin” (2006-09).
Installed in grids (such as in Untitled (Self-Portraits), 2006-07, above), Mann’s self-portraits seem to avoid the trope as much as they engage with it. Yes: In keeping with art historical tradition, Mann uses herself as a model as she experiments with her medium and way of portraying her subject. But while many self-portraitists consider their presentation of their expression or circumstance part of the image they wish to present, Mann doesn’t. These pictures, sometimes unfocused, sometimes scuffed, sometimes dripping, sometimes wholly abstract, are about noise, distortion, chance and the opportunity to rhyme the history of photography with Mann’s own personal history. Nowhere more than in her self-portraits does Mann come across as the Martin Puryear of her medium, obsessed with handsiness and craft as much as with content.
At times Mann’s self-portraits seem to refer more to building-from-degeneration more in line with Mimmo Rotella or Alberto Burri than any 19th-century photographers. As pictures of a specific person, a person who never quite becomes visible, they argue that sometimes we can look and look and look — and never see. They’re all the more commanding for being self-portraits of Sally Mann, whose visage is evident in the exhibition catalogue and who is well-known to the art world. Much of the exhibition’s audience knows Mann is strikingly beautiful. Perhaps just like Rotella and Burri, Mann knew how distracting natural beauty can be and tacked away from it.
The VMFA show also featured a series called “Proud Flesh,” pictures Mann took of her husband Larry between 2003 and 2009, as adult muscular dystrophy took hold of his body. The pictures of Larry, like most of the pictures in the VMFA show, were shot using the wet-plate collodion process that Mann has used for the last decade or so. Many of the pictures in the exhibition, particularly the self-portraits and the portraits of Larry, are about the inevitability of the passage of time. Ironically, those pictures (and most of the show), were made using a photographic technique that stops time in the 19th century.
None of the pictures show Larry’s face or his entire body. Instead Mann focuses on a forearm, a torso or his legs. They argue against the the specificity of memory, against the ability of an artist to capture an individual in a single portrait. When it comes to Larry or herself, Mann doesn’t try. (That’s another lesson Mann may have learned from “Immediate Family”.) In a related story, I know a Sally Mann when I see it, but it’s impossible to remember exactly what it looks like.
The exhibition also included a couple other series, most notably Mann’s unfortunate “Matter Lent” (2000-01) pictures of decomposing corpses at the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center. The former humans whose pictures Mann took gave their bodies to science, not to macabre photographic voyeurism. This is the second time I’ve seen the series and my reaction against them was even more visceral this time. As the New York Times’ Sarah Boxer noted in 2007, they are inappropriate and nearly unethical. They fit the theme of curator John Ravenal’s show and I can understand why for the sake of a scholarly presentation of the theme they’re here, but I’d be happy to never see them again.
The VMFA exhibition ended with a screening of Steven Cantor’s marvelous documentary about Mann and the Manns, titled “What Remains.” The film is a needed antidote to the “Matter Lent” pictures, a reminder that Mann’s work is driven by a curiosity about and passion for humanity.
Related: Part one.