Ars longa, vita brevis
New Work by Sally Mann
What Remains from Photo-Eye
Wayne Bellamy
Sally Mann's latest book, What Remains (Bullfinch, 2003), contains five suites of extraordinary photographs, by turns horrific and haunting, all focused on mortality and its aftermath. Mann is no stranger to controversy and this work will provoke more, but the consummate artistry of her images -- most of them created with the difficult wet-plate collodion process from the 19th century -- leaves no doubt that her intentions transcend the predictable objections. Her commentary and a few well-chosen verses accompanying the images make it explicitly clear that the work is as much about regeneration as decay, and more about living (and loving) with a full awareness of the impermanence of life, than with exploiting our shock at confronting the physical face of death. Thus, although some of the pieces do have a stomach-churning impact (be forewarned) the overall effect is more Rilkean than revolting. The last two sections, in particular, redeem and reward the courage required to view (much less to have created) the photographs in the earlier sections.

The work has its genesis in the death of Eva, a much-loved greyhound, on Valentine's Day in 1999. Mann describes how she could not bear to look at the dog's body when it died, but a year later -- profoundly curious to see how the earth was reclaiming the "borrowed matter" that had temporarily housed her dog's life -- she exhumed the corpse and meticulously reconstructed Eva's skeleton. The first group of photographs are meditative studies of fragmentary remains collected during this process: the slender bones of a toe with its long curved nail intact; a sheaf of ribs; a solitary canine tooth. The colodion process yields a randomly irregular surface, and Mann has added a varnish of her own devising. The resulting patina distances the viewer from the objects represented; strange shadows, scratches, rips, bleached areas and the like, add mystery and indecipherable nuance. The effect is poetic and poignant; it is as if the permeable divide between the living and the dead were itself captured in the frame, as if the photographer were reaching through that divide, searching wonderingly through those meager remains for the vanished essence, yearning for some way to restore a connection.

These are Brueghelian nightmares, genuinely artful but only the more powerfully disturbing because of that.

One may find more relief than poetry in any chemical stains or ripped emulsions that obscure the subjects of the second group of images. The gaze averted from death on Valentine's Day is now replaced by an unflinching direct stare. Here we are shown the corpses and cadavers of human beings who appear to have died violently. The decomposing bodies are often naked; they often lie twisted on the earth in wilderness settings. Mann was able to make the photographs through an agreement with a forensic school, but the aura of permission this bestows does nothing to lessen the horrific force radiating from the images. These are Brueghelian nightmares, genuinely artful but only the more powerfully disturbing because of that. Still, it is probably the case that only such direct countenance of death can prepare one to experience the concluding suites fully. Buddhism brought to ancient Japan a heightened awareness of impermanence, and it led to a deepened appreciation of ephemeral beauty -- the cherry blossom festival and moon-viewing ceremonies, the cult of the samurai, the charming love poetry of the court and the marvelous Zen/nature poetry that followed. But one also reads of monks contemplating decaying corpses by moonlight. A primal acquaintance with mortality -- rare in a society that cosmeticizes death and spends billions each year trying to appear "youthful" -- may well deepen and enrich the experience of living, and that seems to be why Mann has chosen to confront it so starkly.

On 8 December 2000 an escaped prisoner, armed with a shotgun and two pistols, made his way to the Mann family farm. Closely pursued by police, he took a stand in a copse of trees a short distance from the house and there, in the midst of a gun battle, he killed himself. The third suite documents the aftermath of that violence, in images that look almost wonderingly at the landscape, searching in the aftershock for evidence of trauma and finding only the faintest traces -- the tracks of the police cruisers over the fields; some crime-scene tape dimly visible, draped over winter shrubs. Nature appears indifferent, but because we project what we know into the scene, the landscape now seems eerily possessed by the memory of what transpired there.

The photographs harbor a brooding darkness charged with mystery and portent; the earth seems to exhale souls.

Perhaps this experience led to a new challenge, a deeper exploration of "what remains" when violent death traumatizes a place, a people, a culture. In the fourth suite, "Antietam," Mann has carried her heavy camera and equipment (the colodion process typically requires that a plate be exposed within minutes of applying the emulsion to the glass, so it is assumed that she was porting the equivalent of a small darkroom) to the Civil War battlefield that witnessed the single bloodiest day in American history (some 23,000 men killed or wounded). It was the victory at Antietam that inspired Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The ground there is hallowed to many, infused with the blood of great sacrifice. But of course the grasses of the fields, the thickets and shrubs and trees and sky, no longer bear any trace of what took place on this soil. How does one photograph, in a way that conveys more than simple cold reportage, what these fields mean to us, as history and legacy and actual human sacrifice? How does one photograph, in effect, cultural memory rather than physical presence? Mann answers these questions in magesterial fashion. Here her use of antique processes has produced strikingly powerful effects. The photographs harbor a brooding darkness charged with mystery and portent; the earth seems to exhale souls. The brutal directness of the earlier suites is gone, but without relinquishing a sense of death's presence. These are simply beautiful images, hymns to the dead, poignant testimony to their enduring legacy.

Many of the images are nearly lost in washes of light that suggest spiritual transfiguration; these are beings suspended in Time that destroys and creates ceaselessly, in one process.

The concluding section turns from the dead to the living, seen now under a black sun of mortality. (And here we are perhaps given the origin and significance of the title, in a quoted fragment of Ezra Pound's "Cantos" -- "What thou lovest well remains / the rest is dross...") There follows a series of portraits of Mann's children. She is famous for photographing these children, but you will barely recognize them here. The cracked and curling emulsion masks their faces, merges indistinguishably with skin tones so that features seem to emerge as in dreams or memories. We see them in fragmentary glimpses -- two closed eyes, a mouth floating in a sea of bleached light; features defined only by shadows, as if the subject is already gone, preserved only in fugitive traces. These are faces viewed in full recognition of their mortality, but there is also something else. Many of the images are nearly lost in washes of light that suggest spiritual transfiguration; these are beings suspended in Time that destroys and creates ceaselessly, in one process.

Several of these photographs are reminescent of classical Greek sculpture, and the association seems apt. The Greeks inhabited a tragic universe, alive with forces beyond human control. They were profoundly aware of the finitude of human existence and that was one of the sources of their greatness. There is a short poem by Pound in Personae, where he alludes to the reality the Greeks knew. "Seek ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light / And take your wounds from it gladly." These photographs by Sally Mann are made in that light. They are works of great courage, on several levels, and they will remain.


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