Though they do not look at all alike, the photographs of Mike Mitchell and those of Sally Mann, now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, share this: They are images of apparitions. Mann's photographs seem haunted. Mitchell's appear blessed.
Mitchell shows us Holy Ground, churchyards, sacred groves. Some divine beneficence, part Christian, part Druidic, glows within his pictures. Their melodies are heavenly; one can almost hear the harps.
Mann's images are different. Darkness rules her pictures, things flap in the night, her photographs go Ioooooooo.
The ca*mera is a machine, yet it is here used to make the unseen manifest. Two phrases of the poet Yeats were conjured by these shows.
Some places are more Holy than others
And most Holy where most beautiful.
Mitchell would agree. He shows us Gothic stones and foliage, blossoms, tendrils, leaves, and a light that is not our light; it shimmers and it glistens (his film is infra-red). Grace and unseen saints are present in his photographs. Mitchell is devout. I don't know how he does it, but he feels the joy so deeply that before his photographs we believe, we see.
Yeats also wrote:
Fifteen apparitions have I seen;
The worst a coat upan a coat-hanger.
His words fill me with fear. Mann's photographs do not. Before her blurs and shadows, her white things flapping in the dark, one, instead, recalls the giggles of children who turn out the lights and dress up in sheets.
Her show is called "The Lewis Law Portfolio." It's named for a building that was under construction at Washington and Lee University when Mann, with her 8 by 10 view camera, would visit it at night.
She shows us odds and ends and debris - plastic sheeting, piles of brick and lengths of pipe - but because her art is stretched, the viewer rarely recognizes what it is he sees. She uses many tricks - intentional blurring, hand-dodging in the darkroom, cut negatives, etc. - so that when one encounters something in sharp focus (the tear in the plastic in catalog number six, for instance) one sighs with relief. She exhibits some fine photographs, but many seem affected, excessively obscure.
Mitchell's show is more successful. The special film he uses - it makes his stones and branches glow - might also suggest trickery were his pictures not so lovely, his visions so heart-felt.
The Mitchell and Mann shows are the latest in an admirable series of photographic exhibitions organized by Jane Livingston and Frances Fralin of the Corcoran with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Mitchell teaches at the Corcoran School of Art. Mann lives in Lexington, Va. Their exhibitions close Nov. 13.