Photos Worth a Thousand Lies

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007

Everyone's heard the old line that photographs don't lie. By now, everyone's probably come to the conclusion that that just isn't true anymore, if it ever was.

Digital manipulation is the least of it. Take "Self Possessed," a series of black-and-white photographs created in a collaboration between Len Prince, a photographer known for retro-looking portraits of Hollywood celebrities, and Jessie Mann, a young woman probably best remembered as the daughter and sometimes controversial model of photographer Sally Mann, whose frankly creepy images of her young children have provoked accusations of exploitation. On view at Adamson Gallery, the 27 pictures from "Self Possessed" feature the now 25-year-old Jessie in and out of elaborate wigs, costumes and sets that explore what the artistic duo calls the creative possibilities of "subjecthood" and "self-fictionalization."

Who is Jessie Mann? Don't expect to come away from this show with a clue. Blond or brunette, naked or outfitted in an old-fashioned nurse's get-up -- a nod, perhaps, to Mann's one-time career goal -- the uniformly untitled photographs play not just with the notion of identity, but of authorship.

While the photographs are attributed to Prince, the show's publicity gives top billing to Mann, and, sure enough, in several of them she's holding the shutter release cable herself. Whether that's simply a prop -- like the cat sitting on her lap in a picture reminiscent of one of Walker Evans's sharecroppers, or the oversize shell that a platinum-wigged Mann stands on in an evocation of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" -- is up for grabs. Yes, they also play with viewers' heads, albeit in ways that don't always push past the kind of thing Cindy Sherman began doing 30 years ago with her concocted "Film Stills."

Unlike Sherman's breakthrough work, however, Mann and Prince's project doesn't limit itself to the vocabulary of cinema, mixing in allusions to everything from 1950s pinups to fine art. In one, Mann wears a Warhol-style wig; another is a close-up of Mann's face that evokes her mother's famous work. All feature Mann's by-now-familiar thousand-yard stare.

Unlike the more theatrical faces affected by Sherman, Mann's demeanor is, for the most part, affectless. She seems to have co-opted the trappings of earlier models and artistic muses, but not their demeanor. In other words, she doesn't "act." Which may, in the end, be her way not of protecting, but of revealing, herself. By calling attention not to who she is, but to who she isn't.

In "Mini-Matic," Doug Sanford presents close-ups of scathing e-mails sent to him by a former girlfriend.
A series of black-and-white photographs by Doug Sanford touches on a somewhat different interpretation of truth and lies in Fraser Gallery's group show "Mini-Matic." Using shots of printouts of angry e-mails sent by the artist's former girlfriend -- on whom he had cheated -- the works feature enlarged passages of text illustrating such hell-hath-no-fury passion as "I. Hate. You." and "I hope you suffer horribly" and "I know you're just concocting lies."

Sanford's work is part of "Artomatic," the fifth iteration of a sporadic art free-for-all featuring unjuried, uncurated work from all comers. Unable to find a physical space this year, the project existed only as an online gallery ( until Fraser and a handful of the gallery's neighboring art spaces decided to throw together a sampling of the work.

Included along with strong images of women who live as men by photographer

Tiik Pollet, Sanford's suite of images at Fraser is funny in a way, even as it disturbs deep down. And not just for the obvious -- and apparently very real -- anger of the "victim" the images represent, but for the apparent openness of their intended target. On the one hand, Sanford might as well walk around wearing a signboard advertising his unsuitability as a romantic partner. On the other, his honesty is refreshingly attractive.

If in fact that's what it really is, and not a calculated effort on the part of the "sensitive artist" to impress women with his ability to admit past mistakes and atone for the pain he caused.

Who says photos don't lie -- or at least blur the distinction between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, in some of the most intriguing ways?

SELF POSSESSED Through Feb. 24 at Adamson Gallery, 1515 14th St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-232-0707. Open Tuesday-Friday 11:30 to 5; Saturdays noon to 5. Free.

MINI-MATIC Through Feb. 3 at Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda). 301-718-9651. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 to 6. Free. Information about additional Bethesda galleries and arts spaces participating in "Artomatic" can be found at

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