By Don R. Lewis | January 24, 2006

Photographer Sally Mann has a never ending drive to examine and photograph life. She’s spent the better part of her life photographing her husband and three kids as they grow up. Using an old fashioned box camera with plate glass negatives, Mann captures eerie photos that lend themselves well to the next stage of her work. She decides to photograph death.

Mann starts by photographing areas where many people have died. She captures an area that was once a Civil War battlefield as well as a spot on her property where an escaped convict was shot and then committed suicide. Using the aforementioned photography technique, Mann’s photos have a creepy, ghostly feel.

But the film isn’t just about Mann’s work, it’s also about Mann herself. She’s been happily married for a long time and we discover her husband has been diagnosed with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy. We quickly realize that this horrible news may be the reason for Mann’s new fixation on death. It’s as if she can get through this tough time by diving headlong into her work.

After photographing landscapes that had deaths on them, Mann connects with a forensics team who have a garden of dead bodies in their backyard. Mann is fascinated and gets some terrific shots of bodies in various forms of decomposition. Admittedly, the photos are gross but there’s something intriguing about them as well.

Director Steven Cantor does an excellent job of letting us get to know Mann through her life and work, and she’s an interesting person. I had never heard of or seen her work before and it’s truly beautiful and haunting. “What Remains” is an interesting study on artistic purpose as well as life and death captured on film.

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