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The memory of mortality

Sally Mann's latest photos focus on death. No surprise there.

June 16, 2004|Ann Hornaday | The Washington Post

LEXINGTON, Va. — A dense fog enshrouds Rockbridge County this morning, and Hogback Mountain is barely visible. 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 arrives at Sally Mann's 423-acre farm, the fog has mostly lifted and the distinctive hump of Hogback is vividly limned in the bright sun. A few vagrant wisps waft through the dips and hollows of the farm, on which seven Arabian horses canter poetically in the pastures. 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, 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. Mann has worked almost exclusively with 19th century view cameras, unwieldy contraptions with crude glass lenses and accordion-like hoods. The cameras, 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 past.

Mann has shot almost exclusively in black-and-white, further blurring the line between past and present in her work. Her most famous series of photographs, "Immediate Family," was essentially a collection of carefully conceived and composed Mann family pictures, many shot on this very farm, with 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 while they fix a particular, contemporary moment in time.

Mann's new show, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, concerns itself with her 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: studies of the tanned hide and skeletal remains of Mann's dog, Eva, who died on Valentine's Day 1999; photographs of decomposing corpses at a forensics study facility; a sequence at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam; photographs taken after an escaped fugitive shot himself in a copse of trees in her front yard; and a haunting series featuring her grown children, their spectral images floating like Victorian memento mori.

That last series sums up not only "What Remains," ending it on a typically ambiguous note, but also 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 corpse images should surprise people familiar with Mann, who has never been squeamish about confronting difficult material. Indeed, for many viewers the most shocking thing in the show might be the prosaic presence, amid Mann's characteristically formidable black-and-white images, of a simple digital color snapshot.

Sparked by a corpse

Outside the steel-and-concrete house she and her husband, Larry, built five years ago, six greyhounds and a border collie happily howl and rush to inspect a 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 before leading the gaggle to the kitchen. While brewing 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 working construction and helping on the farm this summer; Jessie, 22, is graduating from Washington and Lee University; Virginia, 19, enters her sophomore year at the University of Virginia in the fall.

Taking her tea into the living room, Mann sits 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 near the house, she admits, she engaged in "terrible, bad, silly behavior," wailing inconsolably over the frozen corpse.

"My first instinct was to hold on to her," she recalls. Almost immediately, "I switched from the sentimental to the purely intellectually curious: What really will happen to her?"

Mann gave in to both impulses. She asked a taxidermist to skin Eva, and she contacted the Smithsonian Institution to find out how best to inter the dog so 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.

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