A Matter of Life and Death

Sally Mann looks at history and memory, from Civil War battlefields to her own backyard

Like much of her previous landscape work, Sally Mann's new photographs are a magnificent mess. Streaked, scratched, mottled, muddy, and full of impenetrably dark, foggy passages, they look like negatives salvaged from a flood or fire and reproduced as relics. Several are so dense they appear to be rough charcoal drawings, an effect all the more pronounced because the pictures' varnished surfaces, unprotected by glass, have a peculiar grittiness. (Mann mixed diatomaceous earth, a gardener's staple made of ground shells, with her varnish to give the work its painterly texture.) In one image, a large, indistinct mound of vegetation sits beneath a slate sky that erupts in a shower of snowy spots; grimy foam collects along the picture's upper edge instead of clouds. In others, a field of stubble and reeds is nearly obliterated by wave upon wave of dusty gray billows, a black sun explodes on a ragged horizon line, and the soft curve of a hill—as flat as a cutout—soaks in a heavy rain of sooty specks.

Although Mann's labor-intensive printing process often overwhelms her subject this time around, her strongest images allow for no distinction between style and content. Even before you know that these are Civil War battlefields, you know something terrible happened here. This tree trunk, that short stretch of road, the pine forest, the wooden fence, and the earth itself are all swallowed up in the bottomless maw of history. The hands-on physicality of the antique wet-plate collodion process Mann uses invites the sort of accidents and aggressive manipulation that have characterized her work over the past 10 years. The results, which have gone from dreamy to nightmarish, are wildly expressionistic, increasingly abstract, and occasionally overwrought.

Mann won't deny that there's something romantic in her approach; it comes with the territory. "For Southerners," she wrote in the introduction to Mother Land, the catalog of an earlier series of landscapes, "memory is most often an act of will—and once we conjure it, we are unashamed to overlay it with sentiment. Our history of defeat and loss sets us apart from other Americans and because of it, we embrace the Proustian concept that the only true paradise is a lost paradise." But any vestige of paradise has been blasted from the landscapes gathered at Houk under the title "Last Measure." In Mann's view, these sites—including Manassas, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, and Antietam, where 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers lay dead and wounded after the battle on September 17, 1862—are hardly mute testament to the carnage. In her photographs, the landscape is mutilated, raw, and bleeding; you can almost hear the screams. She wrote that an earlier, more pastoral image "looks like someone breathed it onto my negative." In this case, it would have been with his dying breath.

Looking into the bottomless maw of history: Untitled (Antietam #21) (2001)
photo: Edwynn Houk Gallery
Looking into the bottomless maw of history: Untitled (Antietam #21) (2001)

Since another raw patch of hallowed ground has opened up virtually at our feet, Mann taps into the post-9-11 collective consciousness with "Last Measure," and she's not afraid to conjure up ghosts. She digs even deeper into the intimate interplay of life and death with her new book, What Remains (Bulfinch), which includes 14 views of Antietam along with several other meditations on mortality. Dedicated to her physician father, the book opens with Mann's bracingly unsentimental essay on his interest in the iconography of death (clearly part of her inheritance) and his death at home, surrounded by family, as well as the death, burial, and eventual disinterment of her pet greyhound, Eva. "When the land subsumes the dead," Mann writes, "they become the rich body of earth, the dark matter of creation. . . . [D]eath is the sculptor of the ravishing landscape, the terrible mother, the damp creator of life, by whom we are one day devoured."

What Remains opens with the skin and bones of Mann's dog, photographed as sculptural still lifes and printed, as were all the images in the book, with the wet-plate process. At once stark and extravagant, these images suggest the surrealist's fascination with the exquisitely repulsive object—a gnarly twist of encrusted bone ending in a tuft of hair and talon. But Mann is clearly moved by the pathetic beauty of these relics, and there's a genuine tenderness in the softness of her platinum-gray light. After this delicately morbid introduction, the series that follows confronts death with shocking directness. Working on the grounds of a forensics study site, where cadavers are left out to decompose naturally, Mann took a long, hard look at what remains. Although her pictures of bloated, rotting flesh among the fallen leaves have a kind of hushed reverence, Mann never averts her gaze, never flinches. Here again, the nature of her process seems ideally suited to the work, and the images seem to crack, liquefy, and disintegrate along with the corpses they record. This may be far more than you want to know about your body's fate, but Mann delivers the sad news unapologetically and with the sort of loving, no-nonsense candor that would make her father proud.

She closes her book with a series of mesmerizing close-up portraits of her children, introduced with a few lines from Ezra Pound: "What thou lovest well remains,/the rest is dross." Their faces, familiar to us from Mann's "Immediate Family" series, well up through the warm collodion haze as if from underwater. Tantalizingly present but not quite there, they're like friendly ghosts—reassuring but fugitive. Looking into the eyes of her children, Mann sees the immediacy of life and the inevitability of death, and embraces them both with all the strength she has.

 
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