"Sally Mann: What Remains," June 12-Sept. 6, 2004, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20006.
"Sally Mann: Last Measure," June 10-July 31, 2004, at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1027 33rd Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20007.
Sally Mann must be the most personal artist in America. Her camera is her diary, her photographs its entries.
Manns latest work is on view at Washingtons Corcoran Gallery of Art in an exhibition titled "What Remains." The show, organized by Philip Brookman and expertly installed, is a five-part exploration of death and memory. It starts with images of Eva, Manns own skinned dead dog, continues through some near-portraits of bloated and decomposing human corpses, pauses for some snapshots of a suicide scene just beyond Manns back porch, and culminates with a gallery of photographs of the deadliest Civil War killing field in American history.
The show concludes with photos of Manns children that make them look, well, dead. As with her earlier, intimate photographs of her own children, the images in "What Remains" are challenging, even troubling.
The exhibition is exceptional. Somehow Mann finds beauty in the dead, in memories of the dead, and in places where thousands of men killed each other. Manns photos of Eva -- seven bones lined-up in a row here, a bony paw there -- are respectful rather than eerie. They feel less voyeuristic than reflective.
With sensitive subjects, details are important. On the edge of many of the plates in this show, including photo of Eva's bones, Manns fingerprint is plainly visible. That seems too small a detail to matter, but the trace of the artist's presence injects a little bit of life into these images of death.
My favorite images in the show are the photographs taken in Sharpsburg, Md., not far from Antietam Creek, the battlefield where more Union and Confederate soldiers killed each other than anywhere else. (During the Corcoran show, other images from her battlefield series were on view at Washingtons Hemphill Fine Arts, and a selection of the works also opens at Galerie Karsten Greve in Paris on Sept. 11.)
These photographs are dark and sinister images of a landscape that seems almost primordial. Manns new series could be called Gothic Picturesque. They suggest the frightening quiet of the Civil War battlefield at night, or the unsettled ghosts that might roam the landscape today.
Mann has clearly chosen her photographic method with care. Nearly all of the images in "What Remains" are wet collodion-derived images, a medium associated with Civil War photography. (The Getty website has a helpful demonstration of the process.) Wet collodion photography, named for the key chemical in the process and the way it is applied to a glass plate, was the most popular photographic process between about 1850 and 1880 -- or, during the Souths last gasp, the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Wet collodion is an unforgiving process. From the time the wet plate is prepared to when the image is exposed, the photographer has about 10 minutes. During the development process, any one of a dozen things can cause imperfections that show up on the image as spots, flows or streaks. Mann embraces these flaws. The expressive imperfections in her photographs read as a metaphor for life itself -- short and full of mistakes that must be embraced for what they can teach us.
Manns use of the wet collodion technique has additional metaphorical import. During the Civil War, doctors used collodion to seal wounds and to prevent bleeding. Unfortunately, this sealed infections in as well and usually resulted in the death of the patient. With this show, Mann is addressing how death creates wounds in memory.
The only images in the show that are baldly disturbing are Manns photographs of tumescent bodies at a forensic study site in Tennessee. (The corpses in these images are of people who donated their bodies to science so that forensic specialists could study the way the body decays in natural settings.) In a 2002 New Yorker essay, Looking at War, Susan Sontag wrote, "It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is almost as keen as the desire for ones that show bodies naked." Mann succumbed.
As I look at the forensic images, I feel like Im invading someone elses most personal space. If my gaze at Manns photographs is disrespectful, aren't the photos disrespectful too? Other images in the show are specifically about Mann and her life. With the forensic photographs shes an outsider, and I wonder if Mann should have taken them.
Manns photography has been acused of violating social taboos before, notably in her photographs of her children. She returns to this subject once again in ultra-close-up portraits in the last two galleries of this show. Some are exhibited as glass plates, some as blown-up prints. In a different context, they might prompt questions about what appear to be injuries on the childrens faces. But here they serve as a fascinating bookend, a vision of simultaneous past, present and future.
The show has few easy images. Even the ones that seem facile and solemnly beautiful have hidden complications. Nearly every image forced me into silence. (Other visitors seem to be having the same reaction -- Ive rarely walked through a quieter museum exhibition.) Each time I have walked through "What Remains," I have thought about my own experiences with death. The closest parallel experience I can think of is reading a rich memoir and considering the authors experiences within the context of my own life. And if I think of it that way, Im not intruding at all.