“One can no more look steadily at Death than at the sun,” observed the 17th-century French moralist Francois de la Rochefoucauld.
Maybe. But that doesn’t stop photographer Sally Mann from trying in her new exhibit “Sally Mann: What Remains,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through Sept. 6.
To find the heart of “What Remains,” start at that place on the map where the beautiful-horrible 19th-century American ode to death “Thanatopsis” awaits. Find there an intersection with Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” perhaps as illustrated by the late photographer Peter Hujar, or the engravings of Albrecht Durer.
When they approach death’s door, most people today habitually turn away, although this is not the way it has always been. For far longer, people have been quite at home with death. Babies were always at risk, often not given a name until they were certain to thrive. Hogs on the family farm met the butcher knife each spring, as did a chicken each Sunday. Great-grandma passed in slow motion. Whether from the wake in the front parlor or in the little fenced burial ground in the back yard, people looked at death long and hard. Sally Mann comes from such people.
The long, fertile valley of Virginia, with the Shenandoah for its artery, appeared to Colonists as the new American Eden. Sally Mann’s ancestors arrived in the vicinity of Lexington among the German-speaking settlers.
According to Sally Mann, an unseen guide brought to her one encounter after another with death, strung together so insistently that she could not shrug them off.
First, her father, the country doctor, died, and this made her recall the deaths suffered by his patients.
Then followed her dog. She mourned the dog she had once rescued, seeing its skin transformed into a soft shroud, hung like a triangle, perhaps the tip of an arrow, pointing to heaven.
Then a fugitive felon showed up on her farm and killed himself.
On top of it all, her husband of more than 30 years is slowly succumbing to muscular dystrophy. The emotions thrust upon her took root, and the discourse in her heart yielded a crop of spiritual themes: the divine spark, the mortification of the flesh, the journey from ashes to ashes, and so on, through resurrection.
Sally Mann is no accidental intruder into this world. It comes to her, or she goes in search of it. One cannot arrive at this most honest of all territories without courage, or at least the same detachment that keeps surgeons from fainting or that allows homicide detectives to keep from going insane.
She crosses the yellow tape of murder scenes. She contemplates bodies falling apart and being absorbed into the forest floor. She treads upon many of those boys gone missing in action so long ago at Antietam, their souls released into the night air.
Her experiment in regarding death finds a coda with extreme close-up pictures of her own children’s faces. For all the world, they resemble a little-known American tradition.
“Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries commonly indulged in postmortem photography of loved ones, often to take the only likeness that would ever be made,” wrote Dr. Stanley Burns, an authority on 19th-century medical photography, in his book “Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America.” “Death and mourning played a common, visible, and beloved part of American culture.”
Death does not make Sally Mann flee. Instead, it makes her want to look it in the face.
In “What Remains,” Sally Mann resists, in contrast to her earlier work, her own compulsions toward perfectionism, accommodating instead the chaos and magic of unpredictable, weathered chemistry.
Despite the apparent subject matter, these are not photographs of stillness. They remain emotionally moving and full of compositional movement, as well. Photographic chemical ripples permanently across her skies.
In some important ways, Sally Mann fits the very definition of the conservative traditionalist. She is introverted by temperament, slow and cautious in execution, inspired by history, devoted to roots and a sense of place, sentimental toward favorite old themes, most impressed by honesty. She deviates crucially, however, in her irreverence. To the extent that she will not bow down to puritanical inhibitions, she seems incapable of blind obedience. She is part of that long American tradition of contrary individualists.
Ultimately, the pictures in “What Remains” argue that we are not in control of death and cannot pretend to be by simply not looking at it. Death demands nothing less than grace and surrender.
Ought death find room in a museum? It has always been this way, ever since the first mementos of a late loved one were saved.
Should the unthinkable and the unknowable have a place on gallery walls, and by extension, on the walls of private homes? Walls symbolize safety, but they can still handle the weight of challenge.
Sally Mann does not intend to merely adorn, although her aesthetic sense leaves little to be desired. Her idea of beauty does not leave out the thrill of the forbidden. Sally Mann understands how the earth becomes all the more sacred by the blood spilled there, the blood then sipped by the clay for the sake of new life.
WHAT: “Sally Mann: What Remains”
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW
WHEN: Open daily except Tuesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until 9 p.m. Thursday, through Sept. 6
TICKETS: $6.75 adults, $4.75 senior citizens, $3 students with current ID, $12 families, free for members and children under 12. Admission is “pay as you wish” all day Mondays and after 5 p.m. Thursdays