I just caught up with What Remains, a documentary about the photographer Sally Mann that’s been playing around the festival circuit and will cablecast on Cinemax this Wednesday, Jan. 31 at 7 pm. Full disclosure, Cinemax is part of HBO, which is a subsidiary of Time Warner, which also owns Time and so on. (Look closely at your own paystub and they probably have a half interest in you.) On the other hand, I’ve written about Mann several times over the years, always until now when she had no connection to whoever pays my salary, because her work fascinates me. So there it is.
Steven Cantor, who made the film, followed Mann for five years, starting around 1999. (They had already worked together on a documentary short about Mann in the early ’90s that was nominated for an Academy Award.) It was a period when her work evolved away from the portraits of her husband and children that first made her famous. She began to make melancholy southern landscapes produced with 19th-century equipment and developing techniques. From those she turned to steadfast pictures of putrefying dead bodies, produced with the same techniques, that she made at a forensic research facility where bodies were deliberately left outside to decay. In a later part of the film we get to watch Mann on the phone as she learns that a New York gallery has cancelled a show of those pictures. (Death is always a hard sell, but it probably didn’t help that the exhibition would have taken place just a couple of years after 9/11.) Then comes something like a happy ending. Mann gets a 2004 show of the same pictures at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C.
Here’s one of the easier pictures from that series.
That work got me thinking more broadly about how photographers deal with death. It’s one of the most ancient preoccupations of art. But it was one thing for painters or sculptors to represent a corpse. That “body”, after all, was actually just a piece of stone or a collection of brush strokes. Photographers however point their cameras at actual corpses. And even if we know that photographs are “just” images, we also know that the images are of real corpses. We digest those images differently and they bring with them a heavier burden of questions about how the dead should be treated and viewed.
So how should we look at the dead, that burgeoning group that every one of us will someday join? The conventions that determine what’s acceptable have been anything but stable. Remember Wisconsin Death Trip? It was once a famous selection of photographs, published in 1973, and chosen by Michael Lesy from the work of Charles van Schaick, a studio photographer in a small Wisconsin town between 1890 and 1910. The images that have stayed with me longest are the ones of dead children who were posed for Van Schaick’s camera at the request of their families. It would be unthinkable to do that now, but at the time — an era of high child mortality rates — they were simply regarded as keepsakes.
But those children were intact and offered to the camera in ways that made them appear to be “at peace”, more or less, which is our preferred illusion when it comes to death. With Mann’s pictures we enter a realm without peace, without decorum, which is another way of saying the bodies she photographs are rotting on the ground — swelling, splitting, discharging their innards. But Mann’s techniques — she shoots in black and white, on glass plate negatives that she develops in ways that leave deliberate scratches and halations on the prints — produce instant aesthetic distance. So if these bodies are in state of decay, they are also absorbed by her into an art historical line of meditations on death that extends back at least as far as the Middle Ages. Which makes the pictures bearable.
In the last few years Mann has also been taking pictures of her husband Larry, who has been diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy that will progress with time. The man we see in the film appears for now to be in great shape, which of course just makes the prospect of his future difficulties harder to think about. But that is, after all, why his wife is making these pictures of him. Because for her, as for Richard Avedon, or for Rembrandt and Goya, the deep inspection of our universal and inevitable decrepitude is one of the most important jobs art agrees to take on. These are difficult pictures both for her and for him. But there are all kinds of bravery, and their’s is one.
I have never seen a photograph, not even any of Mann’s, as sobering as the images all through Stan Brakhage’s silent 1971 film The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, for which Brakhage cooly recorded in full three autopsies in a Pittsburgh morgue. Brakhage doesn’t aestheticize the dissections. He simply points his camera in their direction and lets us watch as one body after another is sawed open and taken apart, transformed before our eyes into the merest tract of meat that can be endlessly violated.
All the same, some of the most powerful photos of the dead that I know of are from the series that Andres Serrano made in the early ’90s in a morgue.
Serrano doesn’t use Mann’s distancing devices, her black and white soft focus. He uses his own. The focus in Serrano’s pictures may be sharp and the lighting stark, but the poses and pallette answer to expectations that we bring to the pictures from art history. So the picture above takes the sharply perspectival view of Christ in Mantegna’s “The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ” — the painting that places your eye at the soles of Christ’s feet — and turns it upside down. But in their cool and brightly lit way, these are very moving pictures. They move you to pity. At first the pity is for the people in the pictures, who have died. But soon enough you realize it’s for us, who will.