Art Review: Sally Mann

Treats for the Mind - Museums & Exhibitions

Love, Life and Loss Revealed in the Photography of Sally Mann

©2010 by Ginger Levit

Sally Mann photoEven as a baby, Sally Mann was always taking her clothes off. The toddler would peel them off even faster than they were put on, Sally Mann’s mother remarked, in the film accompanying the recently opened exhibition The Spirit and the Flesh at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Perhaps that is a partial explanation of why she went through a period of fascination, photographing her young children in provocative, nude poses. A decade ago they created controversy about the exploitation of minors and the appropriateness of using one’s own children to advance a career. And they are still initiating opinionated discussion.

Emmet with HoseLike most mothers, Sally Mann believed that her children’s bodies were beautiful. But she went a step further, sharing this love with the world. She says they were a manifestation of her commitment to a personal vision that remains after all else is gone. At this early phase of her career, what was local and personal was her vehicle in her search for the universal.

The comprehensive exhibition now on view at the museum through January 23 is arranged by theme rather than the usual chronological set up. Family crops up at the beginning and reappears in recent work. Photographs done by the quick drying, wet plate collodion on glass process of herself and her Lexington lawyer husband, who now suffers with muscular dystrophy, present a new perspective on this painstaking, antiquated process as well as the personalized subject matter. As she drifted into a new self-image once her children were raised, the Self Portraits appeared, distorted as they produced a one of a kind positive on black glass. Ponder Heart done in 2009, features her nude husband in a classical position from the back. It is part of the section called Proud Flesh where body parts are configured in interesting, unconventional ways.

Sally Mann AntietamPhotographs of her children, Emmet, Jessie and Virginia indicate a multi-level approach in the section Family Color(1984) as Mann celebrates the evanescence of youth, later contrasting it with aging and the finality of mortality. Dog Scratches (1991) depicts her pre-puberty daughter Virginia stretched out nude on a sofa, posed in 19th century classic odalisque style. And in another photograph, son Emmet holds a hose touching his chin as it points upward. Is this a phallic symbol or is he merely watering the grass?

Ten years later when her children are in their 20s, after her color celebrations of the freedom and joy of childhood, she photographs them again, producing pensive, large black and white photographs. What Remains is a commentary on texture and technique, as she keeps the inevitable accidents and flaws of the photographs intact.

Sally MannLast Measure contains no personal references. It was Abraham Lincoln who said in the Gettysburg Address “for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” She has photographed the Civil War battlefields. While no human figures are present, the bleakness and despair permeating the large landscapes allude to life vanished and gone awry on this hallowed ground. On the other hand Matter Lent (2001-02) communicates a gruesome awareness of death. Mann visited the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center, commonly called the Body Farm. Here she stares death in the face, photographing decaying, decomposing corpses and random body parts of corpses that had been donated, unclaimed or abandoned. Mann says that these horrifying images of death bring about a greater appreciation of life.

Mann uses a Polaroid camera to produce Still Lifes, focusing on the cycles of bloom and decay. 75 ambrotypes of the artist—photographs printed on black glass end the exhibition, as she turns inward looking for the answers for love, loss and death.

Explore Southern and human landscapes via the photography of Sally Mann: The Spirit and the Flesh, in a special exhibition at the VMFA through January 23, 2011. Go to for ticket information and the fascinating catalog by the VMFA’s John Ravenal.


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Ponder Heart by Sally Mann. The photographer’s husband is a lawyer in Lexington. He suffers from muscular dystrophy. She often uses personalized subject matter in her experiments with antiquated photography processes. Gelatin silver contact print from 15 x 13 1/2-in. collodion wet-plate negative. 2009. VMFA.

Photo 2: Waterplay. Sally's son Emmet enjoys a summer day watering the lawn. Cibachrome print from 2 ¼  x2 ¼ transparency.  1990—1991. VMFA.

Photo 3: Untitled #4, Antietam, by Sally Mann. Sally Mann’s landscapes captured the bleakness and despair of war permeate the large Civil War battlefields. Gelatin silver enlargement print from 8 x 10-in. collodion wet-plate. 2001.  VMFA.

Photo 4: Untitled, Self portrait. Sally Mann explored themes of life, love and mortality by delving into th Ambrotype (unique collodion wet plate positive on black glass)with sandarac varnish. 15x13 inches. VMFA.

All images courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.





Ginger Levit is a private art dealer offering fine American and French paintings of the past 200 years. She also writes about art and antiques for several publications, including Antique Week, Fine Art Connoisseur and STYLE Weekly. Contact her at



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