Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sally Mann, What Remains

I've been living pretty continuously with this book for, I dunno, a month or something. I've seen many of the pictures from it before, I watched the movie, but this is the first time I've had the book in my hands. It's not an easy book. Unless you are new here, you know I am a certified fanboy, and you will likely guess that my reaction is positive. That is an accurate guess. I think I have more to say, however.

I'm going to refer to the artist here as Sally, because she's been rubbing my nose in some pretty intimate stuff for the last month, and I feel like at least in this narrow little region we might as well be on a first name basis. After this we're straight back to Mrs. Mann, though.

First the particulars, a catalog of what we're looking at. Four sections, three of them shot wet plate, one on large format sheet film.

The first section, "Matter Lent" is wet plate, and comes in two pieces. Pictures of Sally's dog Eva after disinterment, and of Eva's dressed pelt, removed before interment. This is followed by pictures of human corpses on the body farm in Tennessee. This bit is about the flesh itself after the organism dies. (notice how I wrote that, "the organism dies") It is frequently stomach-churning, and always very hard to look at.

Next up is "December 8, 2000", sepia toned, quite pale, sheet film photographs of the site of a suicide on Sally's farm in Virginia, together with one color snapshot of the police cars and so forth surrounding the area of the suicide. The pictures look a bit like salt prints, or possibly albumen. Possibly they are, or possibly it's just a look that felt right. With a bit of melodrama, one might imagine they are, somehow, printed with blood. They certainly stand out from the collodion work. Thematically, this is the land where death occurs. The earth to which the flesh returns.

Then we have "Antietam" featuring wet plate photos of civil war battlefields (or, for all I know, just one), following the theme of the land where death occurred into the past. These are lyrical landscapes, printed very dark, demanding and rewarding close inspection. This section emphasizes a trend from the ugly/grotesque to the beautiful.

The book wraps up with "What Remains", close-up long exposures, also wet plate, of Sally's impossibly beautiful children, now impossibly beautiful adults. This is a little spot of affirmation and life, perhaps. The title suggests that these are what remain behind, but I think there might reasonably be seen a little more in these pictures.

The phrase "What Remains" in the English language is pretty marvelously ambiguous, a point which was surely not lost on the infernally erudite Sally Mann. You can read it as "That which is left behind." or "How wonderful are these things left behind!" or "What are the the things that are left behind?" or "Things left behind? There's nothing left behind, what are you talking about?" and probably several others. The phrase is applied both to the pictures of the children, and the book itself. Make of it what you will, but I assume that all apply.

The book is most assuredly sequenced. This isn't some greatest hits monograph, every picture has its place, its reason. There is real flow to these things.

We see progressions toward increasingly ruinous failures of the the collodion process, along with other progressions of light to dark, or increasing degrees abstraction. The "Antietam" section ends with pictures that could be abstract charcoal sketches, "What Remains" ends with milky white pictures with fragments of faces, lips and eyes. There's a plan here, many plans, really. Echoed forms, progressions, references forward and backward. This wasn't tossed together, this was carefully constructed from what I suspect is an enormous body of material. The sheer amount of labor involved here is staggering. Wet plate ain't for sissies.

There is a progression in time, from the decay of flesh, to the land, and back around to the living, which carries with it a progression from the ugly to the beautiful. There's a stick on the Mann farm that I swear shows up on a battlefield.

Now. Onwards to the important part. Time to wake back up.

And now I could dig in to the material, and go on about the bravery of the artist to confront these difficult issues, of death and dying. I could prance around the edges and talk about the artistry and skill she brings to depicting these things, how amazing it is that she found beauty in these dreadful things, blah blah blah. Alternatively I could rattle on about how awful the subject matter is, and rail against the artist, how dare she, etc and so on.

I'm not going to. You can find plenty of this crap out there if you look. (actually, if you look, it's much worse. most reviewers were clearly afraid to talk about the work itself at all.)

What Sally is up to here is something quite different. Sally is a fucking heard-headed cuss who does not dabble in bullshit. There are really only two ways to cope with this material. The first is to ignore it, which you can do perfectly well by talking endlessly about everything except the work and what it might mean. I did it above, blathering about "the organism," it's extremely hard not to.

The second way is to confront it, and see your own mortality, and deal with that as best you can.

This book is about death. Not dying, not the beautiful imagery of the soul departing for more pleasant climes, not the celebration of life lived, not the tragic and beautiful reaction of society to death, none of the usual stuff. This is about death and decay, the essentials of the thing. The soil, the worms, the return to dust (a surprisingly gummy, liquid, sticky journey, it turns out). And then Sally does something remarkable, if you are open she will grab you by the scruff of the neck and insist:

This. Is. Beautiful.

Sally has used her substantial powers to build a collection which echoes the decay and destruction she's interested in, and which is also beautiful, meaningful. Here it all is, no window dressing, no artifice. No attempt to conceal the stickiest, the most grotesque, the most appalling elements, and yet... and yet there is beauty here. Sally is right. This thing, this death business, is many things, but one of those things is beautiful.

This book has the potential to change you deeply, if you are open. Because she's right. It is horrifying to contemplate, it is ugly, sticky, grotesque. And it is beautiful. It is the most natural and normal thing in the world, to return to the soil, to return our matter to nature for her reuse.

The book gains a dimension now with Emmett's death. The "What Remains" section is cast, for us, in a new light. The photographs of the children finish the book with life. These pictures remind us that the decayed flesh, becoming soil, comes back around eventually as new life. Now we are reminded that these too will pass away, and begin anew. Sally was perfectly aware of this, of course. You can see it in the progression of pictures, as the end with the barest traces of ghostly faces lightly impressed on a milky surface.

Emmett's death is surely a tremendous loss and source of sorrow for those near him. For most of us, though, we out here who don't know the Mann family, it is something else. A faraway loss. We can do the usual thank goodness it's not me or mine or however we generally take these things. But we are also granted a new view of this work, to understand and maybe to accept a little better this inevitable end that awaits us.

I thought for a little while that perhaps the present book might be viewed in opposition to the Dylan Thomas poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night" but upon contemplation I think they are simply talking about different things. Nature, the land, the soil, they care nothing if you rage or no against the dying of the light. Rage or no, they will wait. The land has all the time in the world. Where Thomas's poem leaves off is where Sally's pictures start, really, after the rage is burned out, at a point of serenity and a kind of calm.

Sally starts the book out with these lines penned by Jacques-BĂ©nigne Bossuet, from his "On Death, a Sermon". One supposes that they're appropriate, and they certainly seem to relate to the pictures:

All things summon us to death;
Nature, almost envious of the good she has given us,
Tells us often and gives us notice that she cannot
For long allow us that scrap of matter she has lent...
She has need of it for other forms,
She claims it back for other works.

And is that not, in its own dreadful way, beautiful?

The land, the soil, nature, they're going to take care of you. It's OK.


  1. Does this book contain the pictures she took on the "Body Farm"? Chapter 23 of Hold Still shows a selection of them and tells the accompanying story. I found those pictures unsettling but at the same time almost aesthetically pleasing (perhaps due to the wet plate process). This project certainly required "cojones". Mind you, I've worked almost two years in a nursing home before enrolling at the university and have had some exposure to death - but the mere thought of taking pictures on that "Body Farm" gives me the willies ...

    Best, Thomas

  2. Ah, sorry, I skipped over the sentence related to body farm in your post. Please feel free to delete my comments of today since they are redundant.

    1. I don't see them as redundant at all! Not having worked at a nursing home, I find your input quite useful!

      The movie shows her working at the body farm, and it doesn't seem to phase her in the slightest. She's having the time of her life, as far as I can tell.

  3. Sally Mann's book reminded me a little of Gail Anderson's forensic entomology lectures (Simon Fraser U.-based) which were a life-changer for me. GA's images dealt (mostly) with pig corpses in a body farm standing in for human bodies - that way you could have replicates and series and so on, a useful assortment of different wounds and bodily arrangements, etc etc - with some human body-farm and crime-scene photos as well, I think, from the cases she had consulted on.
    Very-laik-extremely graphic, (and maggot-squirmy-whoooa), no holds barred, this is documentation, and vital documentation at that. And GA made it… so personal (?) that it became irrelevant that this person, violently dead, has essentially dissolved and ...transfigured into another new mass of living tissue - she said that she felt the person was still communicating to her albeit in a physical signs sort of way, telling her things, which indeed they were, and she very much wants to hear and see those things so she can communicate useful info to the justice system.
    Not sure that I could steel myself to take the temperature of a maggot-mass, or correctly sample it and so on, even with GA's tutelage, but her presentation certainly opened my eyes to alternate perceptions of the goooshier aspects of death.

  4. There is a school of Buddhist meditation (Maranasati, I think) which involves sitting with corpses in advanced stages of decomposition. Something of the sort may be going on here, though I'm not convinced that photography is the best medium for it. I found the section of "Hold Still" dealing with this work quite disturbing to read, and this is definitely one book I'm *not* going to be buying...


    1. yes, the tenderness of the meditation upon the skull that is hidden inside of your face…
      (and on another axis, actually, when I wiki'ed Maranasati, there is significant similarity between their meditations and some of the scales in forensic entomology)

  5. Indeed . . . I Love Fall!