Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Steven Cantor's "What Remains: the Life and Work of Sally Mann"

Sally Mann, The Perfect Tomato, 1990


Since it is moving pictures, a film necessarily captures--produces--a process. It turns photographs into the making of photographs. It joins moments ("spots of time") into a Life. This I expected watching Cantor's documentary on Sally Mann's creation of the exhibit "What Remains." So photographs of a long-dead beloved greyhound "lead" to photographs of the Civil War battlefield of Antietam, to photographs of Mann's Virginian farm bloodied by the police killing of a runaway convict, to photographs of decomposing bodies in a forensic study site, as if each group of pictures forms an independent yet preparatory stage in the creative process.

What I did not expect to see is the influence of the film-making on the photography itself. Mann begins to think of her exhibit as a "narrative," and wants the narrative of death to end on a more uplifting note. With such an idea in mind, she takes close-up pictures of her grown up children, Emmet, Virginia and Jessie, who starred, as children, in her career-making collection "Immediate Family." Their faces, seen on a table placed in the middle of the "What Remains" show, are to speak of the survival of love and memory. Is that gesture a conclusion or a compromise with the unflinching look at death? Impossible to tell, not having seen the exhibit, but seeing the film inclines me to think it is a compromise. It fits too well a common American narrative. "What will survive of us is love" concludes the poem, but the realist Larkin qualifies the sentiment in the line before it as "almost true."

The DVD also gives Cantor's documentary short on the controversy over "Immediate Family." There Mann was impassioned in defending her photographs of her children, naked, injured or peevish, and her maternal responsibility. The artist there was in the thick of things, fighting, making, loving. The one in "What Remains" has her legacy on her mind. The film ends, however, with Mann turning her camera on herself. Her husband dying of muscular dystrophy, her children leaving home, she will be her own last subject. I was greatly moved by that final gesture and image, and very much wish to see those self-portraits sometime.

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