Sally Mann: What Remains
by Rachel Kendall

I recently watched a documentary called What Remains, about the photographer Sally Mann. The film follows her through the years as her children grow up and her husband is diagnosed with a serious illness. I had heard of Mann when, in the early 90s, her Immediate Family exhibition was caught up in a whirlwind of controversy. Here was a collection of portraits of her husband and three children playing, dancing, swimming and generally having fun. Brought up in rural Virginia, the children spent much of their time naked, as children do, yet much of the exhibition was felt to be in bad taste by the public and critics alike and Mann found herself having to explain that here was nothing manipulative, nothing sensual or violent in these pictures, especially after a bee sting and a bloody nose.
Before this exhibition, while pregnant, Mann took a series of photographs of twelve year old girls for an exhibition titled At Twelve. The photos show not just (pre)pubescent bodies but varying levels of personal development, a wide-eyed curiosity blurring the lines with young womanhood, the budding knowledge of intimate power married to the childhood need to please.
As with Immediate Family, Mann delivers a fascinating look into lives through the lens, stolen moments of energy, hope, vulnerability and precociousness. She has an almost sixth sense when it comes to juxtaposition of subject and object and of drawing out something that might otherwise be hidden through coyness or a need for social acceptance.
The exhibition What Remains is testament to Mann's ability to shift forward through dimensions of time, body and soul, life and death, from the portraits of her children and the twelve year old girls, which jump out at you full of energy and vitality, to the photographs of the dead, which jump out at you full of clarity and meditation.

Mann obtained permission to go into a training ground used by the police in America, where donated bodies are buried, later to be dug up by trainees in order to learn about cause of death.
These photographs of the dead may be disturbing, shocking, and repulsive, but, again, I don't think Mann chose this subject as a means to shock the public. I think this series is a beautiful and serious memento mori. These pictures are the antidote and natural progression to those that have come before.
And to conclude the exhibition, to serve as a reminder perhaps, Mann included a set of photos of her now-grown-up children, taken over a very long exposure time. Pictures that depict a dreamy, or even sinister look at life. Pictures that could well be of the dead, but whose subjects are, for all their ghostly appearance, very much alive.
More information about Sally Mann can be found at this very informative website: