“If you want to touch the invisible, penetrate the visible as deeply as you can.” These words by the German Expressionist artist Max Beckmann could very well be those of contemporary photographer Sally Mann. They apply to much of her work over the past 30 years, which addresses corporeality, aging, memory and death, but perhaps most particularly to a series of self-portraits made between 2006 and 2007 that have not been shown until now. This series was the focus of the show “Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit.”

At the entrance of the show, which was organized by curator John B. Ravenal, hung a grid of 18 ambrotypes—collodion wet-plate negatives set against dark backing or rendered directly on black glass, as Mann has done, so that they appear as positives—each focused on a view of her face. The last gallery contained a grid of 75 self-portraits in the same medium. The seven galleries between these two installations featured selected works from nine series completed between 1978 and 2009. In these, she penetrates the visible through photographs of her three children, her husband, the Southern landscape, the historical landscape and decaying corpses in a forensic body farm—all speaking to the determined provincialism of her life in Virginia.

Having always remained peripheral in her work, she becomes the central subject in the recent self-portraits. These haunting and haunted images evidence an exploration of the self. Within the frames and through her shifting and fragmented glances, an interior life is revealed. Sometimes appearing psychologically distant, Mann is encountered as a mother, wife, artist, daughter of the South and, most of all, a fading body and soul.

Although the seven intermediate galleries featured a variety of photographic mediums, including Polaroids, Cibachrome prints and digital prints, the majority of the works were made using the same 19th-century method as the self-portraits. Characterized by intractable chemistry and an urgency of timing, collodion wet plates provide a fertile ground for the creative evolution of photographic imagery. The medium captures residues of its liquid interaction and is sensitive to the artist’s gestures in the processes of exposure and developing, so that chance plays a key role in the pictorial effects of the images. Mann permits accidental droplets and streaks to remain on the plates, and the ensuing abstraction both transforms and, paradoxically, magnifies her subjects, offering new views and conceptions of the body and the self. Through the liquidness of the collodion process, her picture planes become rectangular petri dishes breeding enigmatic cultures of the sensorial and the spiritual worlds. In her intuitive union of process and subject, Mann stirs together elements of chemistry, biology and metaphysics, producing curious images of persistent melancholy and ambiguity.


Photo: Sally Mann: Untitled (Self-Portraits), 2006-07, ambrotypes, approx. 45 1/2 by 82 1/2 inches overall;
at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.