Reporting from Lexington, Va.
The meandering path to the cabin where Sally Mann once photographed her young children is through a forest of towering oak, maple and hickory. It's on the Maury River, a mile and a half from the house and studio she designed for herself, and as she walks loudly through a thick layer of leaves and branches, she mentions something about bears.
She saw a couple of black bears here just the other day while on horseback. "They're perfectly harmless," she insists, still crunching through the leaves, her dogs barking around her in the fading afternoon light, "but they shake you up a little bit."
The cabin is empty now and her three kids grown, each the subject of ongoing curiosity whenever spotted at one of their mother's openings, art stars by birth. The period when she made those photographs was just the briefest of moments, a time of bloody noses and feral nudity at home and by the water, documented to great acclaim and discomfort in the 1992 book "Immediate Family."
Her interests have since expanded from that youthful, naked idyll to images of mortality and inevitable decay, of ancient Civil War battlefields and cadavers rotting in the wild. She's turned the camera unflinchingly on herself and photographed the progression of late-onset muscular dystrophy in her husband. At 59, that makes Mann the ultimate nature photographer, facing the raw and unthinkable of life experience with an 8x10 view camera. "The body is fraught," she says. "It's dangerous territory."
This is the theme of "Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit," a book and exhibition that examine the through-line from her crisp early work to her murkier, almost chaotic later meditations on death. Hosted by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, with a vivid catalog published by Aperture Books, it is not a true retrospective, but a gathering of images that cohere on the business of life and its end.
"She takes what's close to home and makes that stand for universal themes," says John R. Ravenal, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia museum. "If it's not her children, then it's herself or her husband or the landscape around her. They're nurtured by the land and their connection to the culture and community."
"Every time a death occurs in my life, I'm just stunned by the emotional impact it has on me and the void that is left behind by that person," Mann says. "There is a great line from Laurie Anderson: 'When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.' The power of death just knocked me flat. I thought it was something I better look into."
Early this decade, that exploration took her from the 425-acre farm of rolling hills and forest she shares with her husband to the Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center (a.k.a. "the Body Farm"), where donated bodies are left to the elements so scientists can better understand human decomposition in criminal cases. On one of her three visits, there were 40 cadavers on the grounds. "And they were gorgeous. Beautiful," she recalls. "Nature is really efficient, and she doesn't spare on the aesthetics."
In some pictures she made there, she operated from a respectful distance, but in others she forces the viewer to take in the full ravages of nature on the human form. There are close-ups of torn flesh and faces drawn back into ghastly smiles.
On the anniversary of her father's death — he died in 1988 — she sits in her kitchen, dining on a casual meal of venison and fried apples harvested from her property. He was a country doctor and local eccentric, a noted gardener of trees and shrubs and the maker of playfully lewd abstract sculptures. He also passed on his 4x5 view camera to Mann.
She rarely leaves the premises, Mann admits happily, and she's clearly relaxed here, chatting seriously but unpretentiously about her work. She's dressed in jeans and a black sweater, her long, brown hair streaked with gray and tied loosely behind her. In the next room is her library, crowded with books on Walker Evans, Nan Goldin and other photographers, below the mummified carcasses of rats and cats nailed artfully to the wall.
She was further awakened to an interest in mortality after a horse-riding accident in 2006. While riding on a nearby trail, her Arabian suffered an aneurism, threw Mann to the ground and then stomped on her before collapsing, breaking Mann's back. The horse died and the photographer was immobilized for months. "I felt completely smashed," she says. "When you can't move properly and everything hurts, you feel like you're 100 years old. And I thought, oh man, this is what's right around the corner." Her response was a series of shadowy self-portraits, shot up-close and mercilessly. For this and much of her later work, she turned to the archaic collodion wet-plate process, and the results were characterized by smudges, scratches, accidental chemical reactions and frayed edges, all suggesting the passage of time.