The sequence to which this picture belongs is entitled Last Measure, and the landscapes in it are all battlefields of the American Civil War. One of the best-known photographs of the nineteenth century, by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, is of such a battlefield, strewn with corpses, and this image is present in all of Mann’s battlefield images, which are quite without the innocence of her other landscapes, for although they too are about death, in the shape of decay and loss, death in this instance is concrete, physical, of the body—which moreover is absent and so in a certain sense dead too.
Nothing of what I have written here, apart from the concrete description of the dark landscape, is found in these pictures. They evade meaning, the way the world evades meaning, being simply what it is. The photographer’s interpretations of it emerge in the picture, but in the form only of the picture itself, intuitively understood by the beholder in the emotions, feelings, moods the picture awakens. The fact that they do not speak, wordless and yet expressive, is what makes them so powerfully alluring. When I look at a tree in one of these photos, it is as if it holds a secret, as if it contains something unfamiliar to me, standing there draped in its dense cloak of foliage, shimmering almost, weightless and yet heavy, and in this light almost submarine, as if it were the sea and not the wind that washed among its branches. The tree is a living organism, alive through perhaps four hundred years or more. It is a simpler organism than us, and we know everything about what it comprises, what happens inside it and why, and still it bears a secret, is a part of something of whose nature we are ignorant, for the only thing we can see is surface; even when we examine its constituent parts, they become but surface. Oh, what do we need with knowledge? Cells and mitochondria, atoms and electrons, galaxies at the farthest perimeters of space, what does knowledge give us when the secret, which only art can express, the voice of the trees and the song of the soil, the very mystery itself, is indivisible?
This latter point may seem hysterical, and many people will perhaps read into it some kind of disturbed religiosity, but why write, why paint, why photograph, or why read, why visit galleries and museums, if not to probe into the essence, where the utmost issues, those from beyond our human sphere, are accentuated—death, life, the red blood in the green grass?
Sally Mann’s photographs in Deep South are definitely not hysterical, they rest in their own particular calm, yet in this they are definitely veiled in mystery. They are nostalgic, too, and seek the identity and peculiarity of a certain place, values no longer cultivated where meaning is shaped. That their form and symbolism belongs to the standard repertoire of the Romantic Age makes them teeter perilously close to what we call kitsch, which empties content from forms by reproducing them without consideration for the surroundings they once were from or incorporating them in the new, which is what infuses any work of art with life. This is not the case with Mann’s photographs, where the past and what belongs to it is a theme in and for the present, which, as its light falls on the glass plate, is also past.
When I look at Sally Mann’s breakout photographs, those of her children, I cannot help but see the same forces at work in them. Nearly all are taken outdoors, either on the porch, which is neither outside nor inside, neither nature nor culture, but somewhere in between, on the lawn outside the house, or at the river below. A striking number of them show her children, the youngest girl in particular, asleep, which is to say contained within themselves, where what is left for us to see is the body, its powerful yet blind presence. Other pictures capture the children in situations in which they appear not to be aware of themselves or the photographer. These photographs seem to me to have something in common with Per Maning’s photographs of animals, which capture the presence of another creature and its distinct nature without any semblance of awareness as to that nature being visible in its eyes or body. As if to reinforce this similarity, or perhaps to establish a difference within it, Mann’s photographs also include a number of images of children together with animals—one of the girls posing in a dress next to a dead deer hanging out of the trunk of a car, the boy asleep on the ground next to a dog, which is also asleep, the children playing with a dog, the boy posing with two skinned squirrels, holding them out in front of him, the girl doing the same with a stoat in another picture. Sleep and the somnolent, the absence of attention from the surrounding world, becomes a kind of vanishing act, the subjects drift from the world and at the same time come closer to it, this near-vegetative or biological-bestial state that connects the children with the animals and the trees comes to the fore only then. Against this tendency stands another, far more evident and direct, consisting in the many portraits of children looking extremely self-assured, their individuality gleaming in their eyes, or posing almost in the way of actors or models. The posing is interesting, they enter into a role, most often with something adult and thereby also sexual about it, in stark contrast to the otherwise dominant innocence of the child, but also to the aforementioned naturalness: these children’s frames, as children’s frames have looked through perhaps a hundred thousand years, perhaps more, and which in that sense are timeless, step in these photographed moments into the contemporary age, imitating its poses, which are a kind of cultural language of the body.
My favorite pictures of Mann’s children are however not in Immediate Family, but in another book entitled The Flesh and the Spirit, and in contrast to the former, which are better known, they are in color. Photographs in black and white are always more stylized, for the world is in color, and when we remove the color we heighten the solidity of the motif, making it more concentrated, a tree, for instance, being drawn that little bit more toward the idea of a tree, which is to say away from its physical, concrete and material reality in which ideas are nonexistent. In a certain sense, transferring this to literature, all novels are written in black and white, details being strictly regulated, never allowed to flood freely, because if they did the novel would be unreadable, as formless as the world it seeks to describe or capture.
In Sally Mann’s imagery, so strictly centered around constant phenomena, body, culture, quasi-nature, nature, color brings with it a kind of interpretive freedom, the child sleeping in black and white is so obviously a child in a work of art, whereas the child sleeping in color is sleeping in reality, on which a door has suddenly been opened, and what is striking about sleep and the child becomes less striking, as if set free in the world.
One of these pictures in particular finds its force in its colors, it shows a boy, perhaps twelve years old, shirtless, in shorts or long trousers, it’s hard to tell, for the image has been cropped, his eyes also invisible to us. He is standing against a background of foliage and his nose is bleeding. His arms and hands are covered in blood, and he holds them awkwardly apart in front of him, the way a child with a nosebleed does, for the blood is sticky and strange, and moreover his chest and stomach are smeared with it, chin and nostrils too. His mouth is open, but it is impossible to tell if this is in excitement at all the blood or simply horror. The boy’s nonsymbolic, unposingly realistic and therefore trivial presence stands against the green of the foliage. The red of the blood so bright in color, seems to say: blood is not “blood,” but blood, a red fluid that flows in all living animals and humans, neither more nor less.
The same relationship between color and black and white applies to another of Mann’s well-known series, in which corpses have been photographed during all stages of decomposition, from the relatively fresh body with its faintly discolored skin to the gaping, almost clean-picked skull. Mann photographed these images at the Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center, where donated corpses are placed out in the woods so that researchers can study the processes of decomposition, primarily for use in police investigations. Some of these corpses are dressed, others naked, some have been buried, others left under bushes or in open land, some have been wrapped in plastic, others placed in shallow ponds, as John B. Ravenal describes in his text accompanying The Flesh and the Spirit. Mann’s corpse images were first published in her book What Remains, in which she is concerned with exactly what the title says, what remains when the human being or animal has died, which is to say the physical body and what happens to it. They are pictures more alluring than disconcerting, possessing the same aura of elegy, the same grief, darkness and beauty as her landscapes, death revealing itself to be the reconciliation of man with the soil, for this is what happens, and what Mann shows us, the way the bodies gradually sink into the earth, becoming a part of the landscape, for in these pictures there is no difference between branches and skeletal limbs, both are matter, or between skin and leaves, hair and grass. When the skull seems to scream from where it lies on the ground, it is the ground that screams. Time in these pictures is that of eternity, the perspective that of the immutable, the mood that of harmony. In the color photographs from this place, which has been given the alarmingly prosaic name the Body Farm, quite different things are going on. One of the images shows a man lying on his back in a shocking red jogging suit with a white logo across the chest, he is wearing socks, gray as his hair, and he seems to have been placed out in the open very recently, only a slight yellowing of the skin indicating that he is dead. The ground on which he lies is covered in gravel and leaves, a bit farther away, perhaps ten meters or so, is a wooden fence, some leafless trees cut back below the crown are growing there, and behind them lampposts line a road. A wintery morning light with glinting sun above the road makes everything sharp and concrete. This is a picture of our modern death, a body laid out in the woods of a research center, and the very realism of the present erases any sense of harmony, any sense of beauty, any feeling of reconciliation of man and soil, culture and nature: this is a collision. The head with its dark ear above the purple neck, under a thin branch with green leaves, gives no sense of any unity between human being and the vegetation that surrounds it: never can the void between them be shown to be greater. And another image, of a puce-colored head with white hair, the facial features eaten away, obliterated by hundreds of fat, white maggots, likewise contains no tone of the elegiac.
Juxtaposed in this way, it is easy to think that the latter perspective, the bleakly realistic, is the true perspective, whereas the poetic beautification of the former is the untrue perspective. The color photos are direct, documentary, the black-and-white ones beguiling, ingratiating. In that case Mann’s alluring landscapes would also be deceitful compared to the photographs of Anders Petersen, for instance, or Lars Tunbjörk, both of whom seek out the raw and unbeautiful sides of human life and its reality, and succeed in bringing out the very life force as it reveals itself concretely in the provisional state that is life. But truth, including the truth of the absolute, is relative, determined by perspective: what Mann does in her photographs is lift her gaze, placing herself beyond time by depicting its unchanging nature, which is not the life and death of the individual, but life as it rises and collapses in us all, these washing waves on which we are so helplessly carried, steered by laws and forces we do not know and cannot understand, which we can see only if we position ourselves outside what is ours. Once, that perspective was that of the divine, created one might suspect for that very purpose, and then, when the divine disappeared, it became the perspective of art. Such an understanding of art was what the generation before me broke away from, to them it was the height of ivory tower and art on a pedestal, something that provided a view but which also was isolated, out of context, individualized, right-wing. But death is not conservative, no matter that it is changeless, and beauty is not right-wing, and the warmth and worldliness of the social domain is not the unique preserve of the working class, as the greatest Norwegian writer of that generation, Kjartan Fløgstad, appears to believe in his novel Grense Jakobselv. Remoteness in that novel is not existential, but moral: the baddies, the Nazis, are portrayed from a distance, accorded nothing near or intimate, and are associated with art of the likes of Hölderlin, Wagner, Beethoven, grand and cold, elitist, whereas the goodies, the socialists, laugh and discuss and slap each other’s backs while sharing their meals. And so it may well have been, but certainly not only, for Nazism was a broad and petty bourgeois revolution, anti-intellectual at root, and foregrounded a middle-class view of art—modern, experimental art is fiercely attacked by Hitler in Mein Kampf. The Nazi canon was in part the classics, in part the petty-bourgeois, which is to say naturalistic, figurative depictions inclined toward Heimat or heroic portrayals of people and nature, what we today would call kitsch, which everyone regardless of background and intellectual capacity would find appealing and easy to grasp. That this was so is another reason for the alluring and the simple becoming discredited in our time. Skepticism toward emotionally laden art is related to this too, I think, for never have allurement and the manipulation of human feelings had such enormous consequences as then. Classic in this respect is Adorno’s confrontation of Heidegger in his book The Jargon of Authenticity. Mythology and the sagas, anything that might be prefixed by “folk,” were also misused and are now similarly discredited.
This kind of suspicion is a part of us, part of our marrow even now. I sense it not only when I am drawn toward Romantic images, or worse, toward National-Romantic images, but also when I read poems or novels whose features might be termed vitalistic, most recently D. H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow, in which I found the closeness between people, animals and the soil to be unpleasant, I did not care for it at all, even if I believe it to be true, not least in a novel such as that, in which our emotional life is understood to be the most important aspect of all in our existence, and any shift in human mood is presented as something monumental. When I experience this, I long to be free, totally free in art, and this to me is to be without politics, without morals—and thereby, the critic’s voice inside me hastens to add, dubious. If we look at a picture of a tree, we are immediately caught in a net of politics and morals, ethics and sociology—for gender and class are also involved—and if I try to wriggle free of this net of distinctions, I simply become more and more entangled.
Such is culture. Presumably that is why I yearn for nature. Presumably, too, it is why I still read and write for, no matter what I read and write, those activities are, in their best moments, selfless, transporting me into that somnambulant, near-unconscious state in which thoughts think themselves, liberated from the self, yet full of emotions, and so, in a negative or perhaps more exactly a passive way, connected with the surrounding world. Occasionally, in what I have read about, but never myself experienced, that feeling of connection is to the universe and is religious ecstasy, the overwhelming sense of the divine, but more usually the connection is to the we, to the other in ourselves, which can come forward only when critical remoteness is lifted. Were it not for this, all novels would be unreadable. And there we are again: the greater degree of critical remoteness, the more exclusive (unreadable) the novel; the closer the we, the closer the culture’s lowest common denominator, that liked by everyone, the crime novel or the light novel, the feel-good novel, the chick-lit novel.
But we are there again only because I am following a few tracks marked out at the beginning of this essay, premises that have governed all that has come after, and if we remove ourselves from them, everything might seem different. The easily accessible, the simple and the immediately appealing are not necessarily exhausted at first glance, are not necessarily bound up with the formalizations and repetitions of genre, we know this; the histories of art and literature are full of examples of images so simple and basic that anyone, regardless of aesthetic competence, can relate to them. What the novel can do, in its best moments, is to simplify without reduction, by seeking not toward reality, the documentable abundance of people and events, whose totality is unreachable and whose individual parts are not representative, but toward the picture of reality, more exactly that which combines two phenomena, the concrete and the inexhaustible. This, which we perhaps could call inexhaustible precision, is the goal of all art, and its essential legitimacy. Inexhaustible precision is the white whale in Melville’s novel, it is the metamorphosis in Kafka’s novella, the human bear in “White-Bear King Valemon,” the fratricide in the Book of Genesis, the sanatorium in The Magic Mountain, the pretend knight-errant of Cervantes’s novel, in other words that which brings together something big and undefinable, not by pointing to it, but by being it, and at the same time always being something else as well. The inexhaustibly precise is always simple, always without resistance and easily grasped, but always has more to it than what first meets the eye. The myth is the prehistoric form of the inexhaustibly precise, for no matter the shifts of time, no matter the preferences of changing generations, the myth is relevant always, for as long as people exist; it would cease to be relevant only when there are no longer people in the sense we know, but something else instead.
Cover image: Luca Vanzella, Camera Museum of Photography, Turin (CC BY / Flickr).
All other images by Sally Mann. © Sally Mann. Courtesy Gagosian.