The dangerous Sally Mann
The meandering path to the cabin where Sally Mann once photographed her young children is through a forest of towering oak, maple and hickory. It’s on the Maury River, a mile and a half from the house and studio she designed for herself, and as she walks loudly through a thick layer of leaves and branches, she mentions something about bears.
She saw a couple of black bears here just the other day while on horseback. “They’re perfectly harmless,” she insists, still crunching through the leaves, her dogs barking around her in the fading afternoon light, “but they shake you up a little bit.”
The cabin is empty now and her three kids grown, each the subject of ongoing curiosity whenever spotted at one of their mother's openings, art stars by birth. The period when she made those photographs was just the briefest of moments, a time of bloody noses and feral nudity at home and by the water, documented to great acclaim and discomfort in the 1992 book “Immediate Family.”
Her interests have since expanded from that youthful, naked idyll to images of mortality and inevitable decay, of ancient Civil War battlefields and cadavers rotting in the wild. She’s turned the camera unflinchingly on herself and photographed the progression of late-onset muscular dystrophy in her husband. At 59, that makes Mann the ultimate nature photographer, facing the raw and unthinkable of life experience with an 8x10 view camera.
“The body is fraught,” she says. “It’s dangerous territory.”
This is the theme of “Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit,” a book and exhibition that examine the through-line from her crisp early work to her murkier, almost chaotic later meditations on death. Hosted by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, with a vivid catalog published by Aperture Books, it is not a true retrospective, but a gathering of images that cohere on the business of life and its end.
-- Steve Appleford
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Photo: (Self-Portrait), circa 1974