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What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann 

Director/Producer: Steve Cantor
Stick Figure Productions/Zeitgeist Films/HBO Documentary Films

“It’s so strange to me that anyone would ever think that a work of art shouldn’t be disturbing or shouldn’t be invasive. It is to disturb, it is to make you think, it is to make you feel. If my work doesn’t disturb, from time to time, it would be a failure in my own eyes. It is meant to disturb in a positive way.” — Richard Avedon

This quote from one masterful photographer could easily apply to fellow U.S. photographer and artist Sally Mann, the subject of the documentary What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, directed by Steve Cantor. The filmmaker and producer revisited the outspoken photographer after he directed Blood Ties, a 30-minute short on Mann, nominated for an Academy Award in 1994. This full-length documentary, theatrically released in 2005 and now available on DVD, gives Cantor the opportunity to expand his earlier documentary, revealing the artist and her intimate method of photography with a wider arc and retrospect.

Sally Mann, who propelled into notoriety and popularity with her work Immediate Family, using her family as models in intimate settings around her Virginia farm, drew controversy as well as high praise. She blurred the lines that divide real life and art. It all stemmed from a children’s book given to her by her father called Art is Everywhere, a book that stressed to look at “the everyday and the ordinary” for inspiration. From a young age, Mann took this to heart. The documentary shows her, during this period, directing various family members to pose in or about the idyllic natural settings of her farm. “The kids carried those pictures,” she reflects, “the force of their personality just comes out.” Mann, who is an extremely articulate artist, mother and woman, also reflects deeply about this period, when controversy and popularity collided for her, when she was claimed as the “best American photographer” on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

We see how she has logically made the transition to shooting landscapes (Deep South), and the eventual path that led her to her most recent work, What Remains, a study of the death of a body as it decomposes. “The earth doesn’t care where death occurs. ...It’s the artist, by coming in and writing about it or painting it or taking a photograph of it, that makes the earth powerful and creates death’s memory. Because the land will not remember by itself, but the artist will.”

What Remains, the documentary, is insightful to Mann’s method of work: how she sees a photograph, how she shoots (she uses old box cameras) and develops. Her use of archaic methods and glass negatives shows how she bridges the past with her sense of the present. She also discusses openly the questions that are raised in her work, what impact it has had on her children, and her own mortality — as an artist and as a human being. Mann also openly deals with the muscular dystrophy that has struck her husband of nearly 40 years, Larry, who is often the subject of her photographs. We see how she distills this in her art.

Mirroring the straightforward approach in her own work, Mann doesn’t flinch (or pose) while on the other side of the lens. She often strikes a very sincere chord, and is, at times, brutally honest and open, beautifully articulating her thoughts with a poet’s precision. It is not a surprise that she often quotes other writers. Her photographs are finely constructed art pieces, ones that also allow for accidents. She is a workaholic and is persistent in capturing her vision.

“The things that are close to you are the things you can photograph the best,” Mann says. “And unless you photograph what you love, you’re not going to make good art.” With What Remains, a larger audience gets to see what that artistic vision can produce.

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Mark Shikuma

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