ST. PETERSBURG — Who is Jessie Mann?
That has been a critical question since 2001 when she began a collaboration with photographer Len Prince in which Mann assumes identities inspired by famous images from art and celebrity popular culture.
The conceit is nothing new but her presence adds a provocative dimension because she is a minor celebrity herself.
Her mother is photographer Sally Mann, who gained both positive and negative attention for her 1992 book, Immediate Family, in which Jessie, her brother and sister, all under age 10, posed nude or in staged settings that suggested violence and abuse.
Jessie Mann, now in her late 20s, has had her ups and downs since her first brush with fame, dropping out of high school, admitting to having a drinking problem in her late teens. She graduated from Washington and Lee University with a psychology degree and moved to a ramshackle farm near her mother's Virginia home to farm and paint.
Then she met Prince, a well-known photographer specializing in celebrity portraits and glossy, high-end ad campaigns. She became his muse, a self-conscious and far more encompassing title than model because it implies an equal partnership. Together, they have created a large body of work — several hundred photos — and several dozen of them are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, part of a gift from collector William Zewadski.
Mann's past is inevitably part of the mystique. The lovely, fragile little girl who was totally exposed is now a beautiful woman who loses herself in role-playing. I wonder if the photographs would have the same compelling force for a viewer who doesn't know the backstory. (If you saw the show without that knowledge, I'd love to hear your thoughts.)
Sometimes I felt as if I were taking a quiz: Name that inspiration!
Many are obvious. Mann dons a wig to become Andy Warhol, reclines in dishabille as Ingres' Grand Odalisque and has violin F holes painted on her back in homage to Man Ray's photograph Violon d'Ingres, which is itself an homage to Ingres. Mann lounging in a bed of rose petals is clearly a riff on the famous scene from the film American Beauty.
Others are less obvious, to me at least. I think the image of a girl who appears to hang from a rope suspended from a doorway inside a house (the head is cropped out) references the film The Virgin Suicides, but Prince gives us no clues; every print is Untitled. Prince and Mann clearly want us to bring our own associations to their work and don't want to hand over theirs — which is what makes the collaboration more than a gimmick. Years from now, I can see myself watching a movie or viewing a work of art for the first time and drawing a line between it and one of these photographs that I hadn't been able to connect.
In most cases, Mann doesn't slavishly imitate another work. That would be simple caricature. Nor does she disappear into a character the way Cindy Sherman does. She wants to be known. I can't figure out if she wants to be herself.
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In the same gallery are 30 photographic prints given by Carol Upham, another generous collector. They're a classic survey of photography greats, part of a much larger group she has donated to the museum.
The earliest one, from 1908, is by Edward Curtis, who documented (in some cases staged) the life of North American Indians. There are iconic images by Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Eugene Smith. Serene landscapes by Don Worth and John Sexton, apprentices of Ansel Adams . . . Adams' heir, Clyde Butcher . . . Jerry Uelsmann's groundbreaking darkroom manipulations and Herb Snitzer's beautiful portrait of Leonard Bernstein. And, yes, a photograph of a young girl by Sally Mann, Jessie's mother.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.