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Viewing a thin line between art and exploitation

January 31, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann," premiering tonight on Cinemax, pays an extended visit to the controversial photographer, best known for her 1992 collection "Immediate Family," with its arresting images of her often naked children. Directed by Steve Cantor ("loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies"), it delivers what its subtitle promises, showing how the life gives context to the work and how the work, the urge to make the work, and the process of making the work order the life.

As you might already know from her pictures, it is a Southern life, led mostly on a 450-acre farm in southwestern Virginia, and in the woods there, and in a cabin on a river.

Apart from a little insight from Mann's family, it's left to the artist to explain herself and her art, and it does not hurt that she is well-spoken in an often casually poetic way (a sapling is "vanishingly small"), or that, like her much-photographed brood, she is nice to look at.

The critical view is represented only by a few magazine headlines: "Art or Abomination?" "Can Art Photography Be Kiddie Porn?" That these were misguided, ill-informed questions the film makes clear, but given that the images that comprise "Immediate Family" were made in a time of hysteria over child abuse -- the era of McMartin and other such day-care scares -- they were surely to be expected. (Mann says she didn't see it coming: "I wasn't trying to push anybody's buttons, I was just responding to things that appealed to me.")

If Mann's children were not always quite the happy collaborators she imagines them -- "I kept going back and forth just to throw your focus off," son Emmett remembers of one session -- they were talented ones. And compared with the more "acceptable" routine exploitation of children in movies and television and advertising, the life Mann portrays, for all its ordinary violence -- cuts and bruises and swollen bug bites -- seems Arcadian, privileged and oddly protected.

Director Cantor had already made a short film about Mann, "Blood Ties," in the early '90s while she was working on pictures that would go into "Immediate Family" (still in print 15 years on), and he serendipitously folds that into the present documentary. Here and in later scenes, the ordinary images Cantor's camera captures are transmuted into something extraordinary by Mann's.

Working with 19th century techniques she pointedly refuses to master in order to let accidents creep in, Mann assembles a new show, a "death project" that includes pictures of the bones of an old pet greyhound; of Civil War battlefields; and of decomposing corpses left exposed for forensic research. In a world that contains "Saw 3," such images are hardly shocking, but they are moving in a way that the designer crime scenes of "CSI" cannot even suggest. (Issues of mortality haunt the film.) Indeed, the most shocking moment in "What Remains" is when Mann's gallery cancels the show, for fear of slow sales, Mann suspects. I still can't get my head around that.


`What Remains: The Life and Works of Sally Mann'

Where: Cinemax

When: 7 to 8:30 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)

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