Culture Lust by Angela Carone
Sally Mann Documentary A Powerful Artistic Portrait
I just watched a new documentary called What Remains about the photographer Sally Mann . Anyone interested in photography or the life and mind of an artist should watch this film. It’s true I have a thing for artist documentaries, but I’m not so blinded by my addiction that I don’t see the good and the bad. This is one of the best I’ve seen in a while.
Mann is probably best known for a 1992 collection of photographs titled Immediate Family , which included some nude photographs of her children. A real dust-up ensued over these images, with critics and conservatives crying child pornography. Despite the controversy, the photographs in Immediate Family drew significant attention for combining romantic, pastoral qualities with the intimacies of family and childhood. Time Magazine soon called her America’s greatest photographer.
This documentary follows Mann through the creation of a new series of work called What Remains , which is about death and decay. Mann is filmed mostly on her family farm in Lexington, Virginia where she does a lot of her photography and has an enviable studio.
She reveals so much of her artistic process and family life in this documentary. It’s a very intimate portrayal, to the point where the filmmaker was allowed to be present at dawn one morning when Mann and her husband are first waking up. That filmmaker is Steven Cantor and it’s not the first time he’s turned his lens on Sally Mann. He made a short about her Immediate Family series and the controversy. The short is called Blood Ties and was nominated for an Oscar in 1994. For a treat, it’s included in the What Remains DVD's special features.
I particularly like what Mann had to say about southern artists, herself included. She says they’re susceptible to myth, to a love of the land, and a commitment to the past. She says what sets southern artists apart is their willingness to “experiment with dosages of romance.” This, she claims, would be “fatal for any postmodern artist” who’d get laughed right out of New York for such proclivities. Having lived in the south and covered the arts for a good stretch, I think she nails that description.
What Remains is available April 22nd from Zeitgeist Films, a great resource for interesting documentaries and beautiful, auteur-driven feature films (Todd Haynes, Atom Egoyan). I recently watched another documentary in their stable called Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project. It’s also about a female photographer, celebrated and famous, who also caused controversy with naked photographs of her children. It’s a good documentary, but Gearon is such a vastly different subject than Mann; less thoughtful, more anxious, and slightly narcissistic. She’s interesting for that combination of traits, but her personality and life experiences naturally set the tone for that film, which is completely different from the tone of What Remains .
I guess that’s part of what I like about the Mann documentary. It mirrors Mann’s personality and work. It takes it’s time, soaking up the landscape, the shadows and quiet spaces, and makes room for reflection. There’s a beautiful sequence where Mann cuts her husband’s hair, sitting outside on their land. We learn a lot about their long life together, and the challenges they face. It makes that simple moment of cutting his hair all the more powerful.