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Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

One of the first major presentations in the United States of the bold work of contemporary photographer Sally Mann will open at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) on November 13, 2010. Exclusive to Richmond, the exhibition will continue until January 23, 2011.

Focusing on the theme of the body, the exhibition will revolve around several entirely new series while also incorporating little-known early work. Mann is admired for her passionate use of photography to address issues of love and loss, expressed in images of her children and southern landscapes. Her recent work uses obsolete photographic methods and nearly abstract images to push the limits of her medium and to dig deeper into themes of mortality and vulnerability. The images include several powerful series of self-portraits—an entirely new subject in her work—and figure studies of her husband. Some of the works in the exhibition include nudity and other graphic material. Viewer and parental discretion is advised.

Detail of Untitled (Self-Portraits) by Sally Mann. Ambrotype (unique collodion wet-plate positive on black glass) with sandarac varnish. 2006-7 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

“Sally Mann is among the top tier of photographers today. Although she is widely exhibited, we are fortunate to be one of the first U.S. museums to produce a major exhibition of her work,” says John Ravenal, the exhibition curator and Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “The fearlessness, power and deeply emotional themes of her art are both captivating and unforgettable. We are pleased to exhibit one of Virginia’s, and the nation’s, finest artists.”

About the Art
Self-examination, aging, death, and decay are some of the subjects of the exhibition, and these are balanced by themes of beauty, love, trust, and the hopefulness of youth. Among the works are portraits of Mann’s husband, who suffers from a degenerative muscle disease. These are juxtaposed with colorful images of her children, forming a poignant comparison between youthful evanescence and the expressive capacity of the mature adult body.

Ponder Heart by Sally Mann. Gelatin silver contact print from 15 x 13 1/2-in. collodion wet-plate negative. 2009 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Other works offer additional perspectives on the themes of aging and mortality. Made during a trip to the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center, Mann’s “Body Farm” images explore her fascination with the thin line between animate and inanimate, form and matter. Multi-part self-portraits represent Mann’s first extended exploration of her own face as a subject. Two self-portrait pieces consist of multiple unique photographs printed on black glass—a format known as ambrotypes— arranged in monumental grids of Mann’s likeness.

“The focus on the body in the exhibition will offer a profound meditation on human experience,” continues Ravenal. “The sheer beauty, formal sophistication, and expressive power of the work is likely to appeal to art world and general audiences alike.”

For her landscapes, Mann developed the method she continues to use today, involving an antique large-format view camera and the laborious process of collodion wet-plate. This method, invented in the 1850s, uses sticky ether-based collodion poured on glass, which must be exposed and developed in a matter of minutes before it dries. Unlike her nineteenth-century predecessors, who strove for perfection, Mann embraces accident. Her approach produces spots, streaks, and scars, along with piercing focus in some areas and evaporation of the image in others. These distortions—“honest” artifacts of the process—add a profoundly emotional quality to Mann’s images.

Mann’s recent work continues to use this technique, but returns to the body as a principle subject after a decade of landscapes. Though the body has been an essential focus in Mann’s work from the beginning, this is the first time an exhibition and publication have explored it as a coherent theme.

The exhibition includes a range of educational programs. On November 13 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., VMFA will host a panel discussion with leading experts in the field of photography, including Vince Aletti from “Art Forum,” Melissa Harris, Editor-in-Chief of “Aperture” magazine, as well as Sally Mann herself. Tickets are $15 ($12 for VMFA members) and are available online.

Additional programs include photography workshops at the VMFA Studio School and a January presentation of the film “What Remains,” which focuses on Sally Mann’s photographic investigation of death and decay. Related statewide programs include workshops by artists Phil Nesmith and Glen McClure and lectures by John Ravenal and Jeffrey Allison at VMFA partner locations. For more information, go to or call 804.204.2671.

About the Artist
Born in 1951, Sally Mann has played a leading role in contemporary photography for the past 25 years. Her career began in the 1970s and fully matured in the Culture Wars of the early 1990s, when photographs of her children became embroiled in national debates about family values. In the mid-1990s, Mann turned her attention to large-scale landscapes, specifically the evocative terrain of the South, where she was born, raised and continues to live. Her landscape work raised questions about history, memory and nostalgia, and also embraced a romantic beauty that proved as troubling to some critics as the sensual images of her children had to others. By the early 2000s, she had returned to figurative subjects, adding images of her husband and herself to her work.

About the Publication
In collaboration with Aperture Foundation, VMFA has published the first substantial scholarly exploration of this world-renowned artist’s work and the first study of her approach to the body. “Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit” emphasizes new and recent work: previously unpublished self-portraits, nude figure studies of Mann’s husband, haunting landscape images, monumental images of her grown children’s faces, and photographs of the dead at a forensic institute in Tennessee. It also selectively includes early work—platinum prints from the late 1970s, color Polaroid still lifes from the early 1980s, and color Cibachromes of her children from the early 1990s.

The selection demonstrates Mann’s interest in a wide range of photographic methods and processes, including her decade-long devotion to the antiquated technique of collodion wet-plate. It also underscores Mann’s interest in the body as a principle subject, as well the associated issues of vulnerability and mortality. In bringing these series together, author and curator John Ravenal examines the varied ways in which Mann’s bold and experimental approach to making images moves her subjects from the corporeal to the ethereal and from the specific to the universal.

Ravenal wrote the introduction as well as individual entries on each series. Essays by David Levi Strauss, “Eros, Psyche, and the Mendacity of Photography,” and Anne Wilkes Tucker, “Living Memory,” provide additional perspectives. Strauss is the chair of the MFA Art Criticism and Writing Department, School of Visual Arts, New York. Tucker is the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography, Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

About the Exhibition
• TITLE: Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit
• ORGANIZER: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
• DATES: November 13, 2010 to January 23, 2011
• CURATOR: John B. Ravenal, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, VMFA
• ITINERARY: Does not travel
• NUMBER OF WORKS: ca. 100
• ADMISSION: $10 (VMFA members free)
• CATALOG: “Sally Mann: The Flesh and The Spirit;” 9 ½ x 11 ½; 200 pages, 1 six-page gatefold; 225 four-color images; Clothbound with jacket; ISBN 978-1-59711-162-1; $60

About the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
With a collection of art that spans the globe and more than 5,000 years, plus a wide array of special exhibitions, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is recognized as one of the top comprehensive art museums in the United States. The museum’s permanent collection encompasses more than 22,000 works of art, including the largest public collection of Fabergé outside Russia and one of the nation’s finest collections of American art. VMFA is home to acclaimed collections of English Silver, Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, British Sporting and Contemporary art, as well as renowned South Asian, Himalayan and African art. In May 2010, VMFA opened its doors to the public after a transformative expansion, the largest in its 74-year history. Programs include educational activities and studio classes for all ages, plus fun after-hours events. VMFA’s Statewide Partnership program includes traveling exhibitions, artist and teacher workshops, and lectures across the Commonwealth. General admission is always free. For additional information, telephone 804-340-1400 or visit

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