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Contemporary Photographer Sally Mann's The Flesh and The Spirit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Detail of Untitled (Self-Portraits) by Sally Mann. Ambrotype (unique collodion wet-plate positive on black glass) with sandarac varnish.

RICHMOND, VA.- One of the first major presentations in the United States of the bold work of contemporary photographer Sally Mann opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) on November 13, 2010. Exclusive to Richmond, the exhibition will continue until January 23, 2011.

Focusing on the theme of the body, the exhibition will revolve around several entirely new series while also incorporating little-known early work. Mann is admired for her passionate use of photography to address issues of love and loss, expressed in images of her children and southern landscapes. Her recent work uses obsolete photographic methods and nearly abstract images to push the limits of her medium and to dig deeper into themes of mortality and vulnerability. The images include several powerful series of self-portraits—an entirely new subject in her work—and figure studies of her husband. Some of the works in the exhibition include nudity and other graphic material. Viewer and parental discretion is advised.

“Sally Mann is among the top tier of photographers today. Although she is widely exhibited, we are fortunate to be one of the first U.S. museums to produce a major exhibition of her work,” says John Ravenal, the exhibition curator and Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “The fearlessness, power and deeply emotional themes of her art are both captivating and unforgettable. We are pleased to exhibit one of Virginia’s, and the nation’s, finest artists.”

Self-examination, aging, death, and decay are some of the subjects of the exhibition, and these are balanced by themes of beauty, love, trust, and the hopefulness of youth. Among the works are portraits of Mann’s husband, who suffers from a degenerative muscle disease. These are juxtaposed with colorful images of her children, forming a poignant comparison between youthful evanescence and the expressive capacity of the mature adult body.

Other works offer additional perspectives on the themes of aging and mortality. Made during a trip to the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center, Mann’s “Body Farm” images explore her fascination with the thin line between animate and inanimate, form and matter. Multi-part self-portraits represent Mann’s first extended exploration of her own face as a subject. Two self-portrait pieces consist of multiple unique photographs printed on black glass—a format known as ambrotypes— arranged in monumental grids of Mann’s likeness.

“The focus on the body in the exhibition will offer a profound meditation on human experience,” continues Ravenal. “The sheer beauty, formal sophistication, and expressive power of the work is likely to appeal to art world and general audiences alike.”

For her landscapes, Mann developed the method she continues to use today, involving an antique large-format view camera and the laborious process of collodion wet-plate. This method, invented in the 1850s, uses sticky ether-based collodion poured on glass, which must be exposed and developed in a matter of minutes before it dries. Unlike her nineteenth-century predecessors, who strove for perfection, Mann embraces accident. Her approach produces spots, streaks, and scars, along with piercing focus in some areas and evaporation of the image in others. These distortions—“honest” artifacts of the process—add a profoundly emotional quality to Mann’s images.

Mann’s recent work continues to use this technique, but returns to the body as a principle subject after a decade of landscapes. Though the body has been an essential focus in Mann’s work from the beginning, this is the first time an exhibition and publication have explored it as a coherent theme.

Born in 1951, Sally Mann has played a leading role in contemporary photography for the past 25 years. Her career began in the 1970s and fully matured in the Culture Wars of the early 1990s, when photographs of her children became embroiled in national debates about family values. In the mid-1990s, Mann turned her attention to large-scale landscapes, specifically the evocative terrain of the South, where she was born, raised and continues to live. Her landscape work raised questions about history, memory and nostalgia, and also embraced a romantic beauty that proved as troubling to some critics as the sensual images of her children had to others. By the early 2000s, she had returned to figurative subjects, adding images of her husband and herself to her work.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts | Sally Mann | John Ravenal |

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