About halfway through “Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit,” an exhibition that the host Virginia Museum of Fine Arts described as being “on the theme of the body,” I came upon ten Mann pictures of Civil War battlefields.
There wasn’t a body to be seen in any of them. These much-exhibited pictures, gelatin silver enlargement prints from collodion wet-plate negatives Mann made in 2001 and 2002, are never as easy as “pictures of Civil War battlefields” sounds like they should be. None of the places are identifiable. The landscapes are mostly obscured by the process that created them, a fine metaphor for America’s consideration of the South.
Mann lives and works in Lexington, Va. — within a two-hour drive of about a third of all Civil War battlefields, reports exhibition curator John Ravenal in the exhibition’s catalogue — so Mann’s interest in the sites on which the War Between the States was fought seems logical enough. But what were those battlefields doing here, in an exhibition about Mann’s examinations “on the theme of the body?” Other series of Mann’s pictures in the exhibition, which closed on Jan. 23, included self-portraits, pictures of her husband, her children, and corpses. Almost every other picture in the exhibition included at least one body.
One possible answer?: The VMFA owns a battlefield picture, Untitled #4, Antietam (2001, above), and perhaps the museum wanted its first exhibition of a native daughter to include the series from which they own a picture? No, what curator would chunk up an otherwise coherent exhibition just to point to one picture (out of ten) that his institution owns?
Eventually, I think I solved the mystery: Mann rose to prominence by photographing her family. “The Flesh and The Spirit” didn’t include any pictures of recognizable Mann family members taken after 1992. That’s the year that Mann twice exhibited pictures from her breakthrough “Immediate Family” series and the year in which Aperture published an accompanying book of the series. The pictures famously featured Mann’s three children being children. Mann’s photographs showed them playing around Mann’s farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, enduring bug bites, cuts, baths and other traumas and joys of childhood. Sometimes the Mann children were naked, because children sometimes are. The pictures are achingly, honestly, straightforward, look-at-me beautiful.
They were also shown and published at a peculiar moment: Three years after the right bullied two art museums into backing down in the face of another series of drippingly beautiful pictures — Robert Mapplethorpe’s — pictures that provoked an attack from right-wingers who were upset that a gay artist made men beautiful. [Image: Sally Mann, Detail of Untitled (Self-Portraits), 2006-07.]
“The Flesh and the Spirit” suggests that Mann was artistically influenced by the dust-up more than she usually lets on, at least in terms of what she’s been willing to exhibit and publish. (The controversy is plainly still on Mann’s mind: In an ‘acknowledgments’ note in the exhibition’s catalogue Mann thanks the VMFA, noting that “surely they must have paused a beat when [Ravenal] proposed [the show].”)
Mann didn’t stop photographing her family after 1992 — both her family and Mann herself are in almost every gallery of this show — but Mann changed her strategy. The battlefield pictures are a hint about how she did that: Mann began to focus less on showing her subjects as recognizable people and instead focused on them (and herself) as topographic possibility. Ravenal’s show, gorgeous and tough, is the exhibition that demonstrates how the response to “Immediate Family” impacted Mann’s career.
To be continued in part two, here…