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Sally Mann photos: Matters of death

In an approving 1992 review of Sally Mann's edgy nude photographs of her three young children, which had come under attack by right-wing partisans of the culture wars then raging, the critic A.D. Coleman expressed the hope that the artist would "change nothing in what she's doing."

"I hope she'll continue making such pictures as these forever," Coleman concluded.

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Yet times change, and so do artists. Thus it should come as no surprise that Mann's most recent work, titled What Remains, could hardly be more different from her earlier efforts.

As its title implies, the exhibition, which opens Saturday at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, is a meditation on death, a study of the inevitable passage of the soul from the body and the traces left in its wake.

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Mann's earlier essays on life's passages -- from childhood to adolescence in Immediate Family and from girlhood to womanhood in At Twelve -- were suffused with a clear, transcendent light that seemed to illuminate her subjects' spiritual as well as physical unfolding.

In What Remains, by contrast, everything is dark and occluded, barely rising to the level of visibility out of the murky grayness of her antique emulsions. (Mann uses an obsolete 19th-century process called the ambrotype, in which light-sensitive salts are suspended in a collodion gelatin on glass plate negatives.)

There are pictures of dead animals, decomposing bodies, Civil War battlefields and an emotionally charged spot on her own property in rural Virginia where an armed fugitive was hunted down and killed. There is something ineffably sad about these pictures, and also monstrous.

There is a tradition of nostalgic remembrance in Southern photography that includes such artists as Clarence John Laughlin, Emmet Gowin and William Eggleston as well as Mann. At its best, it celebrates the textures of everyday familial and communal life that give the region its unique piquant inflections. When not so good, it risks sinking into the mawkish sentimentality of the Lost Cause.

Mann has always been one of the more forward-looking Southern photographers, but I cannot say, as Coleman did more than a decade ago, that I would wish to see her continue along her present path.

Still, the exhibition represents an important -- if, to my mind, somewhat unwelcome -- evolution of this important artist's development, and for that reason alone it is well worth seeing.

"What Remains" runs through Sept. 6. The museum is at 500 17th St. N.W., Washington. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Monday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Admission is $6.75 adults, $4.75 seniors, $3 students. Call: 202-639-1700 or visit www. corcoran.org

For more art events, see Page 32.


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