Sally Mann’s Examination of Life, Death and Decay

Mann’s book and exhibition, “The Flesh and the Spirit,” at a Richmond, Va., museum, ranges from crisp early work to later chaotic meditations on death.

By Steve Appleford, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Lexington, Va.

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.

“She takes what’s close to home and makes that stand for universal themes,” says John R. Ravenal, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia museum. “If it’s not her children, then it's herself or her husband or the landscape around her. They’re nurtured by the land and their connection to the culture and community.”

“Every time a death occurs in my life, I’m just stunned by the emotional impact it has on me and the void that is left behind by that person,” Mann says. “There is a great line from Laurie Anderson: 'When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.' The power of death just knocked me flat. I thought it was something I better look into.”

Early this decade, that exploration took her from the 425-acre farm of rolling hills and forest she shares with her husband to the Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center (a.k.a. “the Body Farm”), where donated bodies are left to the elements so scientists can better understand human decomposition in criminal cases. On one of her three visits, there were 40 cadavers on the grounds. “And they were gorgeous. Beautiful,” she recalls. “Nature is really efficient, and she doesn't spare on the aesthetics.”

In some pictures she made there, she operated from a respectful distance, but in others she forces the viewer to take in the full ravages of nature on the human form. There are close-ups of torn flesh and faces drawn back into ghastly smiles.


On the anniversary of her father’s death — he died in 1988 — she sits in her kitchen, dining on a casual meal of venison and fried apples harvested from her property. He was a country doctor and local eccentric, a noted gardener of trees and shrubs and the maker of playfully lewd abstract sculptures. He also passed on his 4x5 view camera to Mann.

She rarely leaves the premises, Mann admits happily, and she's clearly relaxed here, chatting seriously but unpretentiously about her work. She’s dressed in jeans and a black sweater, her long, brown hair streaked with gray and tied loosely behind her. In the next room is her library, crowded with books on Walker Evans, Nan Goldin and other photographers, below the mummified carcasses of rats and cats nailed artfully to the wall.

She was further awakened to an interest in mortality after a horse-riding accident in 2006. While riding on a nearby trail, her Arabian suffered an aneurism, threw Mann to the ground and then stomped on her before collapsing, breaking Mann's back. The horse died and the photographer was immobilized for months. “I felt completely smashed,” she says. “When you can’t move properly and everything hurts, you feel like you're 100 years old. And I thought, oh man, this is what’s right around the corner.” Her response was a series of shadowy self-portraits, shot up-close and mercilessly. For this and much of her later work, she turned to the archaic collodion wet-plate process, and the results were characterized by smudges, scratches, accidental chemical reactions and frayed edges, all suggesting the passage of time.

It's also how she has photographed her adult children and her husband, Larry, as he weakens from muscular dystrophy. In one portrait, titled “Was Ever Love,” he's bearded and on his back, still strong but as still as a battlefield casualty. In others, his muscles are wasting away. “We’ve been married for 40 years,” she says of the pictures, “so I think he knew it was coming. It really is about trust.”

She never relocated to New York to become part of the art and photography establishment, meeting curators and buyers, but chose to remain in rural Appalachia, where she found her greatest subjects and purpose.

Until Mann was 7, she refused to wear clothes and ran naked through the isolation of her parents' 30 acres with a pack of dogs. It's largely how she raised and photographed her own kids. “The Flesh and the Spirit” includes lesser-known color images of her family, shot with a medium-format range-finder camera (in contrast to the 8x10 black-and-white vision of “Immediate Family”).

“They were made in such a unique set of circumstances,” Mann says now. “America being a fairly suburban country at this point, people can't imagine a situation where children can live as freely with nature as those kids did. It seems jarring and forced and strange. But it would have been jarring and forced and strange to tell my kids to put on a bathing suit to swim in a river when there's not a living soul for five miles in any direction.”

The realization that her own children could be an important photographic subject came as the result of an accident in 1985, when her daughter Jessie came home with an eye swollen nearly shut from a bee sting. The picture Mann made that day was “Damaged Child,” still one of her best-known images.

“When you’re a parent, you don’t think it’s so remarkable, and you think you’re going to see that stuff all the rest of your life and you're stuck with diapers and you’re stuck with wet beds and you’re stuck with bloody noses,” Mann says. “I look back on those pictures and even I have a little involuntary gasp when I see them. They were the most ordinary things in the world then.”

Major galleries were initially uninterested in showing the work, but when Aperture published “Immediate Family,” it arrived during a season of outrage over museum showings of Robert Mapplethorpe’s most explicit pictures and Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” The San Francisco home of Jock Sturges was raided by the FBI for his photographs of young nudists. And Mann found some of her own family pictures condemned by critics.

The atmosphere had an effect. “I was resolute and I wanted to put forward this face of complete commitment and belief in the work,” she says. “But looking back on it, I second-guessed myself all the time. I didn't take pictures that I might have taken.”

She took the photographs off the market six years ago, determined to focus on new work, but the family work remains popular. “I bet we could reignite the culture wars with one little, tiny match. It’s right under the surface of conservative America.”

Odd workplace

“Oh, Jesus, there’s a bird in here!”

Mann steps into her barn workroom just as a sparrow rushes past. The walls are already spattered with the black marks of light-sensitive silver nitrate from the last bird that got in, and the room smells of ether. Her big cameras stand high on tripods and jugs of chemicals are collected everywhere.

Hanging from a hook is the pelt of her beloved greyhound, Eva. The dog’s death led to an early exploration of mortality and the body. Her husband skinned the animal and Mann photographed the decay process. It’s a subject she's still looking at.

Mann turns 60 in May, and is already contemplating how much longer she can work. She has much more to do. “I try not to examine the muse too closely. I do tend to go off on tangents and head off into strange territory with no concern that this doesn’t ‘look like a Sally Mann,’” she says. “I just really want to grow and change and evolve, and not take the same thing over and over again.”

Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2010

Photographs by Sally Mann/Aperture Books