“What Remains” of Sally Mann

This somber coffee table book, What Remains (c.2003) had a controversial beginning as a provocative and critically successful gallery exhibition of over 90 photographs by renowned American photographer, Sally Mann. The book follows suit with five sections of disturbing photos exploring mortality and its connection to the earth, interspersed with text of illuminating moments from Ms. Mann’s life and perspective.

The collection of ghost-like pictures includes the decomposition of her dead pet greyhound Eva (see photo above); human bodies rotting on a forensic farm; and eerie close-up portraits of her children’s faces (easily mistaken for wide-eyed corpses on casual glance).

From barely decipherable ethereal compositions of body parts decomposing in a sunlit tree grove (see photo below) to the blatant close-ups of bloated, skin sloughing corpses, the haunting quality of the black and white images is enhanced by the photographic process that she uses; the 19’th century practice of the wet-collodion process. The intentional scratchy, foggy quality makes it unclear at times what you’re actually looking at, forcing you to look closely before discovering bones and body parts. And even when the subject matter seems clear, it’s always unsettling.

Sally Mann, her What Remains project, and her family have been twice explored in documentary film by director Steve Cantor. First with the Academy Award nominated short, Blood Ties, and ten years later with his recent (2006) feature (also titled) What Remains.

In addition to several film festivals (Toronto’s 2006 Hot Docs included) , BBC
and HBO have both aired the feature documentary. However, Cantor has been reported having trouble getting film distribution:

“Everyone’s ‘we really like the film but the naked
children and dead people are not going to pack
the theatres.’ It’s the most natural thing in the
world. Yes, it’s difficult material, but it is also
about an intimate discovery of process, life
and death.”
POV Magazine (Point of View Magazine) Fall 2006

A DVD release of the documentary is rumored to be released early in 2008. So that gives you plenty of time to explore What Remains, the monograph, before watching the behind-the-scenes. And it’s just enough time for you to share this uniquely creepy photo collection as a holiday gift for those off-beat special people in your life, don’tcha’ think? The perfect present to grace coffee tables and unnerve guests!

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