Len Prince's photographic muse is a woman who grew up before the camera

Venus on the half shell. Chances are, I need say no more to call up in your mind an image of Botticelli's famous goddess — her flowing blond mane strategically clutched in her left hand to conceal her pubes, her right hand obscuring one nipple in a gesture of half-hearted modesty.

She's so well-known that, should you pay a visit to St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts this week to lay eyes on Len Prince's 2005 photograph of Jessie Mann ("Untitled, Plate 76"), clearly inspired by the Renaissance icon, you will get the joke instantly. Mann, Prince's 20-something muse, stands atop a rough-edged "shell" — a cheap plastic birdbath, by the looks of it — a flaxen wig wrapped around her naked body. Behind her, a small garden blooms in front of a domestic yard adorned with lawn chairs and a pair of bbq grills.

As Prince tells it, the artfully composed shot came about during a day's adventure: the whimsical purchase of the shell at a home goods store, a drive through the bucolic landscape around the photographer's New York state home, and the impromptu shoot, arranged in front of a roadside motel. Then as Prince, Mann and make-up artist Jason Paulson set up the shot, a woman ran out of one of the motel rooms and asked if they would like to borrow her pet goat for the photograph.

"Sure enough," Prince says, "if you look in the background, there's an out-of-focus goat."

The collaboration — begun in 2002, scheduled to conclude later this summer and productive of more than 200 images already — melds witty cultural references, Mann's gutsy performances and Prince's flawless eye and appetite for beauty. Sometimes the resulting photographs elicit a laugh (at the pleasure of recognizing one of several homages to surrealist photographer Man Ray or a send-up of American Beauty); others are dead serious (like a play on Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Marat" that finds Mann bleeding from self-inflicted wounds in a bathtub).

At the MFA, more than 30 images on exhibit offer a glimpse into the voluminous series, which Prince calls Self-possessed — an intriguing title that evokes both his muse's impressive composure and ability to embody characters and, perhaps, the slightly crazed drive that enables her to pull off such riveting and arousing performances. (Botticelli's babe — wan and small-breasted — has nothing on Mann, a buxom fox who, even when she is trying to look ethereal, can't keep the burning intensity out of her gaze.) For her part, Mann is no stranger to the camera, having grown up in the pictures of her mother, famed photographer Sally Mann, whose candid images of her children (frequently naked) sparked controversy in the 1980s.

Prince describes meeting Jessie and feeling wary about adopting the daughter of a photography idol as his own source of inspiration; the magic of their first photo shoot changed his mind, he says. Soon the two (three including Paulson, Prince's artistic and romantic partner) were swapping ideas for themed productions — Let's do an Ophelia! An Odalisque! — and embarking on road trips or holing up in the studio with a bag of props and a "two-cent" budget. Thanks to their combined talents, the pictures that come out of Prince's large format camera possess the psychological depth of film stills and a hush-inducing elegance.

"It's a millennium past dress-up," Prince says.

As for the elder Mann, she appears in one of the portraits, standing near her daughter and next to her own camera — a juxtaposition that references the multiple layers of photographic history at play in the series.

Thanks to a 2009 donation by Tampa collector William Knight Zewadski, the photographs in the exhibition belong to the MFA's permanent collection. Prince describes Zewadski as a "guardian angel" whose sophisticated view of the collector's role as patron includes supporting artists through purchases of work as well as making the kind of institutional donations that benefit both museums and artists. (Many of the Tampa Museum of Art's holdings in Greek and Roman antiquities are Zewadski donations — and one of Prince's early encounters with the collector involved staging photographs of dancers and other performers interacting with the ancient objects. The project culminated in an exhibition of both the antiquities and the photographs at the TMA in the early 1990s.)

In September, before the MFA show's closing, Prince plans a trip to St. Petersburg to deliver a talk about the Self-possessed series, sure to be rich with stories of his collaborative adventures with Mann. In the meantime, photographer and muse plan to gather once more, in July, for a final shoot before amassing their collection of images into a book, which Prince hopes will be published in 2011.

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