Adense fog enshrouds Rockbridge County on this late May morning. Hogback Mountain is barely visible on the winding, tree-lined road that leads to Sally Mann's 423-acre farm. But it's typical for the Shenandoah Valley to experience dramatic changes in weather every few minutes, and today is no exception. By the time a visitor pulls into Mann's driveway and pushes an automatic gate-opener marked by a bust of Michelangelo, the fog has mostly lifted and the distinctive hump of Hogback is vividly limned in the bright sun. A few vagrant wisps still waft through the dips and hollows of the farm, where seven Arabian horses canter poetically in the pastures, perking up their ears at the sound of an approaching car. It's impossible not to notice that the vista -- its depth and sharply etched texture giving way to ethereal vapors at its edges -- is just like a Sally Mann photograph.
By now, Sally Mann has indeed become something of a brand name in fine art photography. Most of that world's critics and consumers can immediately recognize her signature style and themes. Since she began her career in the 1970s, Mann has worked almost exclusively with 19th-century view cameras, unwieldy contraptions with crude glass lenses and black, accordion-like hoods. The cameras, which were used by Mathew Brady and his team during the Civil War, produce poetic, haunting images of extraordinary clarity and breadth that suggest both immediacy and a time long past.
With very rare exceptions, Mann has shot only in black-and-white, further blurring the line between past and present in her work. "At Twelve," Mann's series of portraits of adolescent girls in and around her home town of Lexington, recalled the Depression-era icons created by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Similarly, her most famous series of photographs, "Immediate Family," was essentially a collection of carefully conceived and composed Mann family pictures, many of them shot on this very farm, that possessed the feeling of a lost bucolic era. "Mother Land," a sequence of landscapes taken on the farm, and "Deep South," similar studies shot in Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, share an elegiac mood even while they fix the land at a particular, contemporary moment in time.
Mann's new show, which opens at the Corcoran Gallery on Saturday, concerns itself with the photographer's abiding obsessions of mortality, memory and the landscape that has held her in its thrall for most of her 53 years. "What Remains" is divided into five discrete parts: a series of studies of the tanned hide and skeletal remains of Mann's dog, Eva, who died on Valentine's Day in 1999; photographs taken of decomposing corpses at a forensics study facility; a sequence produced at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam; photographs Mann took on her farm after an escaped fugitive shot himself in a copse of trees in her front yard; and finally, a haunting series featuring her grown children, their spectral images floating like Victorian memento mori.
In many ways, that last series sums up not only "What Remains," ending it on a typically ambiguous note, but Mann's career, which was catapulted forward in 1992 with controversial portraits of those same children, often in poses that seemed to rehearse their -- and, obliquely, Mann's own -- death. Not even the shocking images of the corpses should entirely surprise people familiar with Mann's work, in which she has never been squeamish about confronting difficult material. Indeed, for many viewers the most shocking thing in the show might be the prosaic presence, in the midst of Mann's characteristically formidable, even sculptural, black-and-white images, of a simple digital color snapshot.
What Eva Inspired
Sally Mann's dogs announce her presence before she does. Outside the low-slung steel-and-concrete house she and her husband, Larry, built five years ago, six greyhounds and a border collie happily howl and rush to the invisible fence line to inspect and approve a new visitor. Mann, a lithe, tan, compactly built woman wearing khaki shorts and a white cotton shirt, her long, gray-flecked hair pulled into a loose bun, joins them on the porch.
Her gray-green eyes squinting in the sun, she introduces each dog by name before she leads the gaggle to the kitchen. There, atop sleek maple-and-stainless steel counters, elegant antique silver pieces hold clothespins and garden compost; kitschy JFK salt-and-pepper shakers grace the 1950s-era table. While brewing cups of tea, she coordinates an appointment with a horse vet, a visit from a trucking company transporting a load of glass negatives to the Corcoran, Larry's schedule and the whereabouts of her three grown children. Emmett, 24, is living at home this summer, working construction and helping on the farm (today he's weeding the vegetable garden); Jessie, 22, is graduating from Washington and Lee University in Lexington. Virginia, 19, will enter her sophomore year at the University of Virginia in the fall and is currently working in Larry's law office in Lexington.
All three children -- who for so many people will always be ambered as the solemn, androgynously beautiful sprites of "Immediate Family" -- are grappling with what to do with their futures, and how to lead useful and happy lives. Mann's motherly advice has for the most part gone unheeded, although, she allows wryly, "We're almost at the point where I'm not fatally stupid in their eyes."
Taking her tea into the living room, where books by Seamus Heaney and Sharon Olds lie in a pile with more poetry on the coffee table, Mann takes a seat on a small couch in front of huge windows that look out over the hills. Facing her is a gorgeous 30-by-40 inch black-and-white portrait of Eva, her beloved greyhound whose unexpected death sparked the "What Remains" project. When Mann first found her dog in a barn down the hill from the house, she admits that she engaged in "terrible, bad, silly behavior," wailing inconsolably over the frozen corpse.
"My first instinct was to hold on to her," she recalls, adding that almost immediately, "I switched from the sentimental to the purely intellectually curious: What really will happen to her?"
Mann wound up giving in to both impulses. As a way of hanging on to Eva, she asked a taxidermist to skin her and preserve her fur, and she contacted the Smithsonian Institution to find out how best to inter the dog so that her remains could later be excavated. She buried Eva in a metal cage that would allow even the smallest parts to be recovered several months later.
At that point, Mann says, she wasn't thinking about photographs: "I was thinking about the earth." She had recently completed the "Mother Land" and "Deep South" shows. The lush, deeply evocative landscapes are redolent of the South at its most genteel and mysteriously Gothic, but also at its most mournful. The projects, she says, prompted her to think "about the importance of the earth and the way the earth is just an accretion of the dead, that it is sculpted, almost, by death."
Mann didn't consider photographing Eva's skeletal remains until she recovered the cage, and discovered "this really stellar, celestial arrangement of bones, sort of like a hieroglyphic language or something. Right then, I knew."
If "What Remains" represents something of a departure for Mann -- in addition to the color photograph, the series is the first to feature pictures Mann took in a studio -- it is still very much in keeping with the questions that have animated her work for nearly 30 years. She has always had, in her children's words, a "death thing," most likely inherited in part from her father, Robert Munger, a physician in Lexington legendary for a cheerfully morbid sense of humor. A picture of Munger that Mann took moments after his death in 1988 hangs casually on the wall of Mann's darkroom, down the hall from the kitchen. Her office is adorned with skeletons and skulls either found on the farm or given to her by friends.
At one point during a tour of the house, Mann delightedly shares the fact that she has "the perfect palindromic birthday. My birthday is 5-1-51, so wouldn't it be perfect if [I died] on 1-5-15? Which would give me 101/2 years." But surely, it's suggested, she would want more time than that. Mann laughs. "I don't know. Maybe I'm running out of ideas anyhow."
Relics of the Past
Sally Mann's shooting studio was built the year after she built the house, although it looks like an old converted barn. Unlike the darkroom and office up at the house, this is where Mann can be really messy. The room, whose six floor-to-ceiling windows look west onto a sun-dappled forest, holds two view cameras, one whose frame is outfitted with a foam rubber cushion where the children lay down for their portraits and where these days Larry is posing for the three-to-six-minute stretches that the camera demands.
Mann walks over to the table where Eva's bones are still neatly laid out, here a propeller-like clavicle, there the leg that she broke when someone slammed it in a stall door. "I love all these flies!" Mann exclaims at the dozens of insects that have lighted, and later died, on the bones. "I'm trying to think about doing some fly art."
Mann walks to the other end of the room, and hanging there on the wall is Eva's black-and-white hide, looking much the way it does in the opening image of the catalogue for "What Remains." "There she is!" Mann says gently. "It's a little heart-stopping, isn't it?"
It's here where Mann mixes the ether, collodion and silver nitrate into the emulsion that she pours onto 8-by-10-inch glass-plate negatives; working quickly, she must expose the negatives while the emulsion is still wet, then rush it into the darkroom to develop. The entire process takes about five minutes. She began working with collodion -- a 19th-century process that produces images that are at once sharp and eerily blurred -- during the "Deep South" project.
Many of the images in "What Remains" are scratched or otherwise flawed, results, as Mann explains, of "accident, bad processing, poor chemical management, you name it. . . . I'm forever messing up. But when you mess up, you get great effects." And, she adds, she likes how fast the process is. "You see what you get. It's like a Polaroid," she says. "And I'm old now. I like that kind of stuff."
Since her first shows in the 1980s, Mann has become one of the most critically and commercially successful photographers of her generation. Her prints -- which are usually produced in editions of five -- sell for between $16,000 and $32,000. She is constantly asked to do portraits, especially of very rich and often very famous people's children, and she always refuses, "not because of any high moral stance," she says over a lunch of venison sandwiches. "I'd just be too scared that it wouldn't be good enough."
Mann admits that she's "a little confused about what to do next," because "What Remains" "had such a neat, tying-up-of-loose-ends feeling about it. Art isn't usually that didactic." Unlike any of her other projects, she says, "this was one that was finished when the answer was there. It was almost like an SAT question. You pose a question and you seek out the most aesthetically felicitous answer."
And, as to the question of what remains, she says, "the answer was love." She interrupts herself, looking for just the right words. "Actually, interestingly, the answer to that question was love, memory and loss," she says. "A sense of loss remains, but the sense of loss is designed to be the catalyst for more intense appreciation of the here and now."
After lunch Mann, an accomplished equestrian who regularly trains with elite endurance riders, meets the veterinarian in the horse barn to discuss her prized Arabian stallion. Every hook, hinge, bar and blade in the building -- as well as nearly every drawer pull and door handle in the house -- was forged by Larry, who worked as a blacksmith before reading law in the 1980s and becoming Lexington's city attorney (he has offices in town and on the farm). Tall and soft-spoken, with Clint Eastwood good looks, Larry "is a great problem-solver and he's very nonhysterical," says Mann, who compares him to Atticus Finch. "All three children would, I'm sure, agree that Larry was the one thing that was like the voice of reason in this household. We're all a little high-strung, except for Larry."
While Mann meets with the vet, an epic thunderstorm sweeps through the valley, washing away the haze and humidity and intermittently stabbing the sky with bolts of jagged lightning. When the sun comes back out, Mann leads Emmett and her dog Honey on a walk to the Maury River and the cabin her father built there shortly after he bought the farm in 1962. The walk is one that Mann used to take every morning at 5:30. "Now I'm a little less diligent." Waist-high blades of fescue, which will be harvested soon as hay for cattle, hold jewel-like raindrops in their feathery seed pods. "God, this is gorgeous," Mann exclaims to no one in particular. "Look at this grass! Someone should photograph this grass. Hmmm. Maybe today is a good day to start doing landscapes. At 7 tonight, when the light is just right."
Eventually the pasture gives way to forest, and after another 10 minutes' tramp the cabin comes into view. For fans of "Immediate Family," the one-room building is akin to a shrine, having figured so largely in that series. The cabin, where Mann grew up and where her own children spent every summer while they were young, has fallen into disuse. But the familiar images are everywhere in evidence.
Here is the chain from which Jessie swung in "Hay Hook"; there is the corner where the kids were photographed playing Sorry; there's the tree Jessie posed against, growing right through a hole in the porch floor. Mann drifts through the room, asking Emmett about a down sleeping bag and reminding him that they're throwing Jessie a graduation party there next week. He points out the bed where he and his sisters posed for "Sunday Funnies." "Those years of their lives really were a treasured time," she says, "and they went by so damn fast." She turns to Emmett. "We thought we'd always be going to the cabin, didn't we? Then, suddenly, poof!"
It's been more than 10 years since "Immediate Family" made its debut in 1992. The show, and the ensuing book, created a minor maelstrom for Mann, who had begun to photograph her children eight years earlier, often in poses that suggested violence ("Emmett's Bloody Nose"), abuse ("Damaged Child"), incipient sexuality ("The New Mothers") and even death ("The Terrible Picture"). Almost immediately, Mann and her family were caught up in the culture war debates that had swirled around Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano; when people found out that many of the photographs had been staged, she got in trouble for that.
Looking back on the controversy, Mann says, it's easy to remember it as bigger than it actually was. "I think people's memory of what happened is exaggerated," she says. "I mean, what did happen? Nothing. If you don't play, they go away. And I just basically said, 'I'm not answering the phone.' "
At the time, the Manns' family therapist suggested that, even though the kids were clearly well adjusted and not being exploited in the course of the project, there was the possibility that one of them might grow up to write a "Mommie Dearest" book.
"Right," Mann says, nodding her head. "But that's a potential consequence of being a mommy." She laughs. "If they write the 'Mommie Dearest' book, it won't be because of the pictures. It'll be because of my personality or the burned toast or forgetting to pick them up at Brownies or whatever it was. It's not the pictures."
Even as the "Immediate Family" controversy faded, Mann's trials weren't over. In 2000, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, she showed some slides from an ongoing project of hers that has documented her marriage, often in intimate detail. After the show, Gov. James Gilmore announced that he had received an anonymous letter protesting a public institution's showing "displays that push the envelope of decency." This time, she says, "the editorials all rushed to my defense, I mean strongly to my defense. So I didn't really have to do anything."
With "What Remains," Mann was careful not to court controversy. The magnificent portrait of Eva that graces her front hall, in which the dog assumes a classic greyhound pose, with the leash at a 90-degree angle from her neck, was edited out of the show because it looked too much as if the dog was being hanged. "The last people I want to [anger] are the dog people!" Mann says, laughing. "My God! The right-wingers, fine. But the dog people, I love dog people!" So far, she says, the public seems to be accepting even the most difficult images of "What Remains" "as an intellectual construct. I'm posing a question I'm trying to answer. And all the pictures are being used in service of a concept."
In addition to the photographs of her marriage, she's been working for the past year and a half on a series of portraits of Larry, who was diagnosed in the mid-1990s with muscular dystrophy. Very gradually, the muscles of his thighs and upper arms are atrophying, a process Mann has documented with often-startling candor. Those images, as well as many nude shots of her husband, have challenged Mann to constantly consider and reconsider notions of art, privacy, trust and gender politics.
"What's more important, to take a good picture, or make sure he's comfortable with it?" she asks. "It's a really hard one."
Although history is rife with men photographing their female muses, she says, "It's just not as commonplace to have a woman photographing a man. . . . So I'm a little chary of the whole thing. I think it'll be a long time before I release those pictures, just because you've got to think about what the public can take. I don't always want to be needling people with my photographic questions."
Mann has changed into dry clothes after the wet walk to the cabin and has temporarily disappeared to feed the dogs. Virginia arrives home and begins to negotiate with Emmett about who will drive whom to an outdoor party that night; Jessie is expected later for dinner. Larry wanders in, just home from the office, and reaches into the refrigerator for a beer. Mann comes into the kitchen, mixes a round of gin and tonics and begins to slice pieces of brie onto homemade bread.
The talk turns to books, and Virginia disappears into her mother's office to Google Edith Wharton. Outside the kitchen window, the sun is beginning its descent behind Hogback Mountain. The hills have begun to deepen in shadow. Inside, a day's worth of fruit rinds and vegetable skins settle and shrink in their silver dish, joining the detritus that will soon nourish another crop. It's 7 o'clock, and Sally Mann is looking out the window. The light is just right.