"Everything I do is arduous," Sally Mann says as she coats a glass plate with collodion and ether, just the way photographers did it 150 years ago. "Why do I do that? I don't know. Not because I'm better than anyone else... " Mann always used unwieldy large-format bellows cameras with 19th-century brass-rimmed lenses, equipment so crude that she uses her hand--the only digital thing in sight--as the shutter. A few years ago, she raised the bar another several notches when she began working with these collodion plates, an arcane process that requires coating the glass, keeping it damp while taking the picture and developing it, all within minutes. If you've ever wondered why 19th-century photographs look the way they do--ghostly, but with pinpoint detail--here's the answer. Mann is often told that her methods are completely unnecessary. Lately, though, while photographing Civil War battlefields, she's stumbled onto an appreciative, if unlikely, audience. "Those Civil War re-enactors know all about collodion," she says. "But they think I'm just some sort of camp follower."
By now, Mann is used to being misunderstood. In 1992 she published "Immediate Family," a book of photographs of her children, shot mostly around the family farm outside Lexington, Va., where Mann herself was born--in Stonewall Jackson's house, no less. The pictures captured an Edenic vision of children at rest and at play. But in many of them the children were nude, in poses that suggested a knowingness, a lack of innocence, that any reflective parent would recognize but that few willingly acknowledge. Overnight, Mann was tossed into the strange ranks of photographers--notably the late Diane Arbus--whose work leaves you squirming even as it holds you spellbound. While Arbus sought out such misfits as sideshow freaks and transvestites, Mann rarely looks beyond her own family, or her own backyard. Yet both artists cast you in the role of voyeur and then force you to question why you can't turn away. But they also reward your struggle. While your sense of propriety is getting worked over, your sense of humanity is mysteriously expanding.
This fall, coincidentally, brings new books by both Arbus, who died in 1971, and Mann. "Revelations," the Arbus book, accompanies a huge retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and it majestically confirms what we already knew: that she was one of the great photographers of this or any age. Mann's book "What Remains" offers greater surprises. She's wrenched her attention from the domestic scenes in "Immediate Family" and --turned to matters of mortality and death, looking for clues (and finding a disquieting loveliness) in a Civil War battlefield; her dead dog's skin and skeleton, and decomposing bodies at a forensic laboratory. And instead of the crystalline clarity of the family pictures, these new wet-plate images bear an almost corroded look, with scratches and blurs and starbursts and dark corners. The fragility and instability of this antiquated method captures the tenuousness and the mystery of what we're looking at. We see through a glass darkly, but we see more, not less.
The 52-year-old woman behind these disturbing photographs is surprisingly cheerful and unaffected. There seems to be no demarcation between art and life, family and friendship, on the farm that--with the three kids now off to college and the Peace Corps--she shares with her husband, Larry, an attorney, and their dogs, cats, goats, finches and Arabian horses. Their walls are lined with her work, as well as photographs --by Arbus and William Christenberry; in her darkroom, she's hung a child's tattered ballet tutu. The artist Cy Twombly, her friend and fellow Lexington native, helped lay out the grove of maples in front of the house.
"What Remains" began here, with the sudden death of her favorite greyhound, Eva, in 1999. Mann remembers staring at the carcass, frozen in the barn, and thinking that "she was so there and so not there. I was trying to figure out what it was all about, what happens after death. I called this guy and asked if he could skin her. I just didn't want to lose her." Then, months later, Mann exhumed the skeleton and began to photograph the bones. "I just wanted to see how something that beloved could turn into the earth," she says. "It was a way to come to grips with the finality of death."
Next, an assignment for The New York Times led Mann to a place she will identify only as a "forensic study facility," to which people bequeath their corpses for educational purposes. "You have every possible way that somebody could decompose," she explains. "Some are hung, some are in the backs of cars, some are exposed, some are under plastic." Mann's images are both gruesome and strangely beautiful: life and decay merging inextricably. Then, in 2000, after she photographed the corpses, an escaped convict shot himself on her farm; she photographed the site of his death. "That's when the whole question changed from 'what does the earth do to a dead body?' to 'what does a dead body do to the earth?' That's when I knew the next step would be to go to someplace like Antietam."
That battlefield lies a couple of hours north of Mann's Shenandoah Valley farm. Here, in 1862, more than 23,000 Americans were killed or wounded on the bloodiest day in American history. Somehow, Mann brings that violence back. In pictures as dark and troubling as a half-remembered dream, trees and ground blend and blur like malignant giants struggling to blot out what little light seeps down from the sky. Beyond any doubt, these are haunted images. Mann saw none of this when she was setting up to shoot. "There are tour buses and all kinds of people going by," she recalls, "and it's 80 degrees and the gnats are getting in my eyes, and it's the most commonplace field in the world. But I began taking pictures, and the pictures had all of the mystery in them. I can't explain it. I would be drawn to these completely mongrel-like, scrubby little places. Not the places that have all the placards but just little orphan corners of the battlefield. I'm not mystical in any way, but I think there just are places which have some kind of power."
The book ends with new, ultra-close-up portraits of her children. Afloat in the wet-plate matrix, these, too, are ghost images that threaten to fade as we look at them. "The point is--and this is very '60s--to love the ones you're with, because life is so fleeting. All the obvious platitudes." These pictures inevitably suggest the keepsake photographs commonly taken of dead children in the Victorian era, and Mann almost didn't include them in "What Remains," for fear they might seem too sentimental. "One of the reasons I chose the pictures that I did is because of the way they fade into ambiguity. You can't tell if they're alive or dead at a certain point. So, yeah, it has a little edge to it." In all this impermanence, what does remain? Mann stares at her fingers, black as a coal miner's from silver nitrate solution. "The answer to 'what remains?' is 'love.' Love is what makes Antietam powerful, because it's the ground that holds loved children. And because I loved my children, I photographed them." Doing it the hard way, with glass and chemicals, with lenses from another century, she has fixed that love forever on the page.