Untitled (Self-Portrait), 2006-12 © Sally Mann courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

In the past, Sally Mann, named America’s best photographer (Time Magazine, 2001), has chosen young girls (At Twelve), her three children (Immediate Family), The South and Civil War Battlefields (Deep South and Last Measure), decaying human bodies (What Remains), and her husband (Proud Flesh) as her subjects. But in Upon Reflection, she has at long last turned her camera toward herself.  The results are eerie, beautiful, horrifying and brave.

The full implications of her work lie not only in her subject matter but also the technical aspects of the craft. The images are ambrotypes, wet-plate positives on black glass. The process was used in the early 1850s but was overtaken by other processes during and after the Civil War. By bringing a technique that was confined to the pre-industrial era of American history into the 21st century, while simultaneously incorporating her modern sensibility, Mann has created a strong, feminist work and study on the modern psyche.

The subject and master of these beautiful images is a woman whose face, eyes, and body – even in Mrs. Mann’s static poses – belie emotions not seen historically in ambrotypes. She also portrays a complex range of emotions. For instance, in a single work of art composed of six plates, each with a different self-portrait, one face appears ghostly, another grandmotherly-old and familiar, another young and innocent. The images are interesting in that they evoke the pre-Civil War era except the subject’s soul is without doubt outside the realm of what could have been. Instead, we see a woman at great freedom to express her thoughts – sometimes in deep satisfaction and rest, other times overcome with psychological pain; sometimes, she is looking back at you – as if you are her own reflection.

One could argue that these images clearly display that accessibility to human emotions as seen through the human face has changed in the modern era, though not in the manner that the famed historical novelist Jack Finney elucidated in his Time and Again. The world in which the ambrotype emerged– where everyone had a place and there was a place for everything – seems to wither away while being transformed. As a result, the viewer sees a modern existence that can be one of great emotional depth, as it builds on old and beautiful forms.