Making Art Out Of Bodies: Sally Mann Reflects On Life And Photography
Photographer Sally Mann is fascinated by bodies. In the early 1990s, she became famous — or notorious — for her book Immediate Family, which featured photographs of her young children naked. Critics claimed Mann's work eroticized the children, but Mann says the photos were misinterpreted.
"I was surprised by the vehemence, I guess, of the letters and the dead certainty that so many people had that they understood ... my motivations and feelings and who my children were," Mann tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "People feel like they understand the children just by virtue of looking at the pictures but ... those aren't my children. Those are photographs of my children. They're just a tiny, tiny moment slivered out of time, a 30th of a second."
After those photos, Mann moved on to what she describes in her new book, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, as "deeply personal explorations of the landscape of the American South, the nature of mortality (and the mortality of nature), intimate depictions of my husband and the indelible marks that slavery left on the world surrounding me."
Mann's work has included a series of photos of decomposing bodies in a University of Tennessee forensic anthropology research facility and photos of her husband, whose muscles are withering from muscular dystrophy.
On photographing her children naked
It's not that I wanted to do a series of pictures of my children nude, it's just that they were always nude in the summers when I did most of my shooting. We had a cabin on the river on our farm and there's not another breathing soul for probably 5 miles in all directions and they just never seemed to wear clothes. Why should they? They were in the river almost all day and deep into the night, so the fact that in many cases the children were nude ... that's just how the children were. ... I didn't take pictures of them once they reached the age of puberty, certainly. But considerably before then, I think, I quit taking pictures of them.
On what she thinks the photos of her children capture
One of the interesting things is to go back and look at the contact sheets and you look at picture after picture after picture of the same scene. And you'll see in one picture, [the children] look mean; and in another one, they're giggling; and in another, one of them is punching the other and they're laughing. They're just doing regular kid things. You just always have to remember that picture ... that's a 30th of a second and to either side of that picture are half a dozen other images that are completely different and warm and friendly and sweet.
On photographing the University of Tennessee's "Body Farm"
The "Body Farm," as it's colloquially known, is designed to help graduate students measure decomposition in human bodies. They use it primarily forensically, I think, so that if law enforcement runs across a body that's, say, been locked up in a trunk for two weeks, they can gauge the size of the maggots or the development of the blowflies and know exactly or close to exactly when that body was put in that trunk given temperature conditions and all that kind of stuff. ...
There was something matter-of-fact about the way those bodies were laid out and how they were treated. I mean, they were a scientific experiment and very quickly I grew to see them that way, in the same way that the graduate students were working with them. So that was one of the shocking things. ... The smell is just unbelievable but I had to sort of pull myself together and figure out a way to handle things I had never seen before and never anticipated ever seeing — these bodies in various stages of decomposition.
On her fascination with death
I have had a fascination with death that I think might be considered genetic. ... My father had the same affliction, I guess. The origin of his was the sudden death of his father — this is just a theory, we never talked about it. ... I think it changed the course of his life. He became fascinated with death. He then became a medical doctor and obviously fought death tooth and nail for his patients. But I was surrounded in the household with the iconography of death. He was a very cultured man and he was fascinated with the way death has been portrayed through the ages in all forms, from cave paintings to literature to everything. ... I picked it up by osmosis.
On photography's effect on memory
Using photographs as an instrument of memory is probably a mistake because I think that photographs actually sort of impoverish your memory in certain ways, sort of take away all the other senses — the sense of smell and taste and texture, that kind of stuff.
On photographing her husband's body after his muscular dystrophy diagnosis
I don't think that he in any way in those pictures loses his dignity ... and I don't think anyone would think of him as being weak. ... It was wonderful. It was some of the happiest times I can remember being behind a camera. It's usually so fraught when you're taking a picture. I work with an 8-by-10 camera and there's a hood that I put over my head and it's tricky and complicated, but this was just such a lovely moment in our marriage. We're headed into our 45th year of marriage next month. ... It was just such a quiet, peaceful moment for us and it's not that we didn't know he had muscular dystrophy, but it was really one of the first times we actually sat down and looked at what it had done to his body and making art out of it somehow felt like the right thing to do.
You can see more of Mann's work here. Note that some of her photographs are graphic and/or include nudity.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Sally Mann, became famous - or notorious - in the early '90s for her photographs of her young children, naked, in poses that were often interpreted as eroticizing their bodies. After those photos, she moved on to what she describes as deeply personal explorations of the landscape of the American South, the nature of mortality and the mortality of nature, intimate depictions of her husband and the indelible marks slavery left on the world surrounding her.
Her work has included a series of photos of decomposing bodies in the University of Tennessee forensic anthropology research facility and photos of her husband and his muscles that are withering from muscular dystrophy. Now she reflects on her work, her life and her family history in the new book "Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs." In a review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Francine Prose described it as a wonderfully weird and vivid memoir. Sally Mann, welcome to FRESH AIR.
SALLY MANN: Thank you.
GROSS: Many of the photos in this book are of your family. And you write that photos don't preserve our past as much as they supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. And I think I know what you mean, in the sense that a lot of my memories of my parents, who died several years ago - a lot of my most vivid memories of how they look come from the photos that I've seen over and over again from different stages of their life. Is that - is that what you mean?
MANN: That is what I mean. I think that's using photographs as an instrument of memory is probably a mistake because I think that photographs actually sort of impoverish your memory - in certain ways, sort of take away all the other senses - the sense of smell and taste and texture and all that kind of stuff. So, I mean, this is not an unusual argument.
GROSS: But do you feel like the photos you've taken of your family - the many photos you've taken of your children and your husband - have supplanted your actual memories of them?
MANN: Well, it's funny - not exactly. You mean - you're talking about my art photographs, right?
GROSS: Those are the only ones I've seen.
MANN: Yeah. Well, I have, you know, boxes and boxes and scrapbooks filled with everyday, normal, quotidian pictures of the children just doing their regular stuff. And then there are the more iconic, black and white, printed-quite-large art photographs - and I'd put that in sort of quotes - photographs of the children. And those somehow, to me, resonate on an entirely different level than the snapshots, if that's making any sense. For one thing, they're fictions to a large extent, and they're in service of a concept. I'm, in many cases, trying to actually show something about a larger concept, whereas the snapshots are just that. They're just snapshots of everyday activities - children, you know, dancing or puking or whatever they did.
GROSS: (Laughter) So you became famous and controversial for the photos in your book "Immediate Family," and these were photos of your three young children. And they were controversial because in some of those photos, your children were naked, posed in ways that were interpreted by some as eroticizing your children's bodies and even verging on child pornography. I'll give a couple of examples. One of them is called "Virginia At Three," and your three-year-old daughter, Virginia, is naked, leaning against a bed, one hand on her hip, the other touching her nipple. And in the bed is one of your young children, who is under the covers and facing the camera. There's a photo called "Rodney Plogger at 6:01." This was taken in 1989. And is this your daughter who's in this?
MANN: Yes, that's Virginia.
GROSS: This is Virginia, and she's standing between the legs of an older man, who is seated. And his legs are naked. He's wearing shorts that are hard to see, but he is wearing shorts. So his hands are clasped on her tummy, and his much larger hands are next to her tiny ones. His forefingers are resting on her little hands. And then a third one is "Virginia, 1988." Again, this is your young daughter Virginia. She's standing naked, staring at the camera with her arms crossed over her chest. Why did you want to do a series of photos of your children nude, and how old were they while you took that series? What was the age range?
MANN: Well, it's not that I wanted to do a series of pictures of my children nude. It's just that they were always nude in the summers when I did most of my shooting. We had a cabin on the river on our farm. And there's not another breathing soul for probably five miles in all directions, and they just never seemed to wear clothes. Why should they? They were in the river almost all day and deep into the night. So it's the fact that in many cases the children were nude were just that's how the children were. The age range - oh, I didn't take pictures of them once they reached the sort of age of, gosh, well, puberty, certainly. But considerably before then, I think, I quit - I quit taking pictures of them.
GROSS: So what's the story of the - behind the photograph "Virginia At Three," where she's naked leaning against a bed with one hand on her hip, the other touching her nipple, and another of your child - children is in bed, facing the camera?
MANN: Yeah, well, to me, that's a picture of Virginia in some form of defiant triumph. Jessie's sick. She's sick in bed. And Virginia is almost standing over her with this, like, snoot-cocking look on her face, just, you know, in full control and perfectly healthy, and Jessie is laid out and defeated.
GROSS: Jessie's the child who's in the bed.
MANN: Jessie's the older. Yeah. Jessie's the child in bed, and Virginia's the younger. And to me, it's just a - it's about sibling relationships. The fact that she's - the hip-cocking pose is very typical of Virginia. She did that a lot, and it was just sort of - it was just a moment between those two siblings.
GROSS: And touching her nipple?
MANN: I guess that's what she was doing. I didn't tell her to do that. That's what you have to understand about so many of these pictures. Unless we were doing a picture that - where we were replicating a work of art or something, where, you know, they would - you know, I'd pose their bodies. In general, I didn't post them. In general, they just did what they did, and there's - as in so many other cases, there are pictures to either side of it. You know, I didn't - where she maybe has her hand over her chest - but there's just something about the look in her face in that one picture that just - yeah, it said exactly what I wanted to say - that defiant look of triumph.
GROSS: And what's the story behind the photograph "Rodney Plogger at 6:01"? That's the one where your daughter is naked and standing between the legs of a seated man.
MANN: Well, in a certain sense, it plays off that same - that same concept of Virginia. She's clearly leaning back against the chair on which Rodney is sitting, and Rodney is so much bigger. His hands are enormous. He's a very, very big man. And she just - his hands dwarf her hands. And I thought that - that, of course, just caught my eye, right there. But then, once again, there she is with that look of complete self-possession and composure. And it's not quite defiance, but she's completely unperturbed by the enormity of his hands against hers. She seems completely calm and powerful, and I think that's a little of what I was trying to say. In a lot of these pictures, these children are really so self-possessed and strong.
GROSS: So you write that you grew up running around nude. You hated clothes, and you were naked as much as you could be as a child on your family's land.
GROSS: What did being nude mean to you when you were young? Why did you not want to wear clothes?
MANN: I don't - you know, that's the other treachery of memory. I don't really remember. I just remember resisting being clothed tooth and nail. People still - you know, they're all in their 90s now, but they still remember the fight my mother had to get clothes on me. And they (laughter) - I don't know what it was. It was just power, I guess? I don't know - defiance, just sort of natural cussedness, some personality trait. But I just wouldn't - I wouldn't get dressed.
The other thing you have to understand is that we lived way out in the country. I had no friends. This wasn't - this wasn't the suburbs. And the only companionship I had were these 12 boxer dogs that my father kept on the property. I would - I just thought I was another dog. I mean, it's like those teat-sucklers of myth. You know, I was just raised by dogs, and I guess clothes just seemed extraneous to me. Yeah, I can't explain that entirely.
GROSS: So from your memoir, I get the impression that you were surprised when the photos of your children were interpreted by some as crossing a line. Was there ever a danger for you of being prosecuted for child porn?
MANN: I suppose there could have been, but absolutely nothing happened. You know, Jesse Helms did not speak my name on the Senate floor. I mean, the only one who railed against me was some preacher in the backwoods of Minnesota. But I mean, there was intellectual discussion, but I don't think I was at any risk. And certainly the FBI told me that they didn't think it was going to - that I was at any risk of any kind of prosecution or even, you know, any kind of local examination.
GROSS: At what point did you talk to the FBI?
MANN: Oh, let me think.
GROSS: Was it before or after publication?
MANN: I think it was before. I think it was before the book was published. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I took in the sheaf of prints. And we're talking about a man named Ken Lanning, who has just been a saint to this whole thing. He was in the behavioral science department of the FBI. I took - I took in the pictures, and he looked at them and said something memorable, like, I mean, yeah, people are going to be aroused by these pictures, but I've seen them be aroused by doorknobs or shoes or, you know - there's nothing that won't arouse some people. And he's been very supportive and positive. I'm still - I'm still in contact with him.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is photographer Sally Mann, who is also a very good writer. And now she has a memoir called "Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is photographer Sally Mann who is also a writer, and she has a memoir - a new memoir - called "Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs."
You write that you were pretty stunned by some of the letters you got. I mean, critical reaction was mixed. There were critics who said these photos are extraordinary and others who said they verged on child porn. You got letters from people saying, among other things, that you were sick and twisted and manipulative. You got letters from people saying the pictures brought back their own repressed memories of being the victim of incest. You got letters saying that you were clearly the unacknowledged victim of incest. And then you got letters from the stalker. And tell us about that and how that affected your life as a mother and as an artist.
MANN: Well, first, you have to understand that I didn't expect to get any letters. You - when you published a photography book back then - and my publisher was Aperture, and we'd published one right before then - "At Twelve." And you know, you printed, like, 5,000 copies, and 350 of your friends bought them. And they gave them away to their family, and it stayed - you know, they - it didn't sell out right away. And that's exactly what I expected to happen to this book, so I'm not being disingenuous when I say I was surprised by the attention. And it's not so much that I was surprised that people were - wanted to talk about those pictures. I was just surprised that so many people were looking at them and buying the book. So there's - that's just a slight qualification there.
I was surprised by the vehemence, I guess, of the letters and the dead certainty that so many people had that they understood what my motivations and feelings and who my children were. There was just so much presumption in people's reactions, which I understand because they're intimate. And people feel like they understand the children just by virtue of looking at the pictures, but you know, one of the points I make in the book is that those aren't my children. Those are photographs of my children. They're just a tiny, tiny moment slivered out of time - a 30th of a second.
And one of the interesting things is to go back and look at the contact sheets. And you look at picture after picture after picture of the same scene, and you'll see, you know - in one picture, they look mean. And in another one, they're giggling, and in another, they're, you know - one of them's, you know, punching the other. And they're laughing, and you know, they're just doing regular kid things. And you just always have to remember that that picture - say, that iconic picture on the cover of the three children standing there, glaring out at the world - that's a 30th of a second into either side of that picture or about half a dozen other images that are completely different and warm and friendly and sweet and, you know, just like that - there's a famous Diane Arbus picture of the little boy in the Central Park where he looks like a freak. He's holding a hand grenade, and he's got this grimace on his face. And if you - again, if you look - excuse me - if you look at the contact sheet, it's - you know, it's 11 other pictures and that one.
GROSS: I understand that, but also, we're not given your contact sheets. We're given the photos that you selected for us to see. And the ones that you've selected are often the ones that would be considered, you know, the potentially eroticized ones. So getting back to what were the motivations, what were your motivations in doing that? What did you want to show about your children?
MANN: You mean in doing the whole project?
GROSS: Well, and specifically, the most controversial photos in which your children are arguably eroticized.
MANN: Well, I guess that's the key word. I mean, I don't feel they're eroticized, so we're - we can agree to disagree on that, I guess. My motivation for the project was - it began sort of in a documentary vein, just trying to take pictures of the children doing what they did. It began with a black eye and, you know, a ballet tutu and, you know, just the simple, everyday things. So it began kind of as a documentary thing, and then - then it sort of segued into a more, I guess, more iconic - the images became more iconic, I suppose, would be the way to say it. And then we began - we did a whole series of pictures where we reshot artworks, paintings and things that they'd seen in museums, that kind of thing, so it evolved over the years. I mean, I shot for about 10 years, and, interestingly enough, I mean, people will always say, oh, the woman who took those nude pictures of children, but even in immediate family, I think - I say in the book. I can't remember. It's less than - less than a quarter of the pictures have, you know, any skin. Most of them are dressed, but less than a quarter of them have, you know, chests exposed. And, you know, not that many are actually nude, and if you look at the total body of work, which is something like 200, 250 pictures, that's just - that's almost inconsequential.
GROSS: So, nevertheless, there was a stalker who, I think it's fair to say, terrified you. And so how did that affect you? How did that response affect you as a mother and an artist?
MANN: Well, there's no question it had a chilling effect. It made me - did I reassess the pictures? Did I wish I could snatch them back and bundle them back into the - into the film boxes and never have put them out? Not really. I listened a lot to Ken Lanning. He was a big help, and he said...
GROSS: This was the FBI agent.
MANN: Yeah, yeah. And he said, this - you're going to be fine. These, you know - these - these people are out there. Just be vigilant and believe in your work. And that's what we did.
GROSS: You wrote in a letter to a friend in 1993 that, because of the response you got, you were reluctant to push the limits anymore. So did it change your subsequent work and was it a relief after the - to turn to Southern landscape photography, where it wasn't your family? It wasn't even people. It was the land. It wasn't going to be controversial.
GROSS: It wasn't to be attacked as violating, you know, agreed-on boundaries.
MANN: Norms, yeah.
MANN: Yeah, I mean, I suppose it was. I don't think that's exactly - I think the landscape kind of found - found me and called to me with just an irresistible siren song. But I - I mean, that letter - I published it because it was of the moment. And, yeah, I think - I think I didn't want to put myself in that position anymore.
GROSS: So just one more question about this chapter of your life.
MANN: OK. It's just 70 pages in a 500-page book (laughter).
GROSS: But here's the one more question.
MANN: All right.
GROSS: Were your - were your children ever embarrassed? Did they ever feel like their privacy had been violated after they got older and were able to see those photos in context and reflect on the impact that they had on their lives - that those photos had on their lives?
MANN: Well, I've learned to just suggest that people ask them. I don't want to speak for them now. I mean, the youngest child is 30 now, so - and I'm sure they can answer that question. But they're - during the - during the time of when the book came out and that kind of stuff, they wanted to give the book to their, you know, school teachers and stuff. They were very proud of the work, and I think they still are. But, again, I - from all evidence, they are. But I don't like to speak for them to answer that question.
GROSS: My guest is photographer Sally Mann. Her new book is called "Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs." After we take a short break, she'll tell us how and why she did a series of photos of decomposing corpses. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with photographer Sally Mann. She's written a new book called "Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs." She became famous, and controversial, in the early '90s after the publication of her book "Immediate Family," which included nude photos of her young children. She moved on to photographic series of what she describes as deeply personal explorations of the American South, the nature of mortality, intimate depictions of her husband and the indelible marks that slavery left in the world around her.
The advice you give as a teacher is to photograph what is important to you, what is closest to you, to photograph the great events of your life. And all of that got called into question when something really traumatic happened to you. Your son was hit by a car and thrown, like, 45 feet. And then you were across the street when this happened and you saw the accident. You saw him lying in a pool of his own blood. Everybody around him assumed he was dead. You were afraid that he was dying as you watched. And you write about the thoughts in your mind about photography in that moment, too. What were you thinking in terms of whether you should or shouldn't be taking a picture?
MANN: (Laughter) Well, there wasn't any doubt about it. I mean, what I thought was, I'll never be a photojournalist. It was 11 minutes that I sat with him while we waited for the first aid. And that's when I realized that couldn't possibly ever imagine taking a photograph at that moment, even if it hadn't been my child. There's - you know, I don't have that in me. And just to circle back - and I don't want to circle back endlessly to the family pictures, but I do think that that was one of the - that was one of the main issues with the family pictures among all of us was that, you know, nobody wanted the children to lose their dignity in any of those pictures. OK, that's the end of the family pictures (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. But there's a different series of family pictures I want to ask you about. And this is the series of photos of your husband called "Proud Flesh." They're included in a volume called "Proud Flesh."
GROSS: And he has muscular dystrophy, which is a progressive and incurable disease that weakens the muscles. How has that been changing his body, and what aspects of that did you want to capture in your photographs?
MANN: Well, he's got limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, which, as it implies, affects the limbs and the girdling muscles of the lower back. His is odd because it's the right arm and the left leg - oh, I might have that backwards - left arm and right leg, there we go. And we're talking about just the thigh muscles and the bicep muscles. So those have weakened - shriveled is actually probably closer to the right word. So he has no muscle left in that part of his body. And it's - he was a extremely strong and powerful man and beautifully fit. And it's - you know, it's been enormously difficult, although he has handled it with his typical stoicism and grace. And we talked about maybe just - again, the project began with a kind of documentarian impulse. I would just sort of document what we were seeing and what we were - what he was experiencing. And it turned into something a little more artistic than that.
GROSS: Does he have a fear or did you have a fear that people would see him as weak and compromised and might feel sorry for him? And I think, on the whole, people don't like it when people feel sorry for them, do you know what I mean?
MANN: Right (laughter).
GROSS: It leads to this kind of, like, condescension.
MANN: Yeah. I don't think so. I think people would only be impressed by his grace and fortitude under, you know, such an affliction and impressed with his willingness to put himself forward in that way.
GROSS: Does it make it any more or less frightening and difficult for you to see your husband's body be compromised and to be able to document that and capture something beautiful about it, to kind of abstract what's happening and turn it into art? Like...
MANN: Yes, exactly.
GROSS: How is that helping or not helping you process the fact that he is becoming weaker and this is a progressive condition?
MANN: Yeah, I think as an artist, that's a lot of what I've done is I've taken what is now, commonplace, his weakness and tried to make it somehow revelatory and resident in some artistic, lyrical way, which does help me. I mean, that's really what art should do for us, and it does it for the artist too. And it may even do it for him. It may help him see it in a slightly different way. But I don't - I don't think that he, in any way in those pictures, loses his dignity, which is, of course, a paramount aspect of it. And I don't think anyone would think of him as being weak.
GROSS: Does it also give you, like, work that you can do together?
MANN: Well, there's that, yeah, yeah. It was wonderful. It was some of the happiest times I can remember being behind a camera. It's usually so fraught when you're taking a picture. I work with an 8-by-10 view camera and there's a, you know, hood that I put over my head, and it's tricky and complicated. But this was just such a lovely - this was a lovely moment in our marriage. I mean, we're headed into our 45th year of marriage here next month.
MANN: We're headed into our 46th (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) That's pretty terrific. Yeah.
MANN: Yeah, 45th anniversary. And it was just - it was a quiet - it was just such a quiet, peaceful moment for us. And it was - it's not that we didn't know he had muscular dystrophy. But it was really one of the first times we'd actually sat down and looked at what it had done to his body and making art out of it somehow felt like the right thing to do. It's one of my favorite bodies of work, just for the record.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is photographer Sally Mann, who now has a new memoir. And it's called "Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is photographer Sally Mann. She's written a new book called "Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs." She's interested in documenting the nature of mortality. And this next chapter of our interview is probably not for the squeamish.
One of the series that you've done is called "What Remains." And it's a series of photographs of decomposing bodies that are part of a research study conducted by the anthropology department of the University of Tennessee. What's the goal of their study?
MANN: Their study - this - the Body Farm, as it's colloquially known, is designed to help graduate students measure decomposition in human bodies. And they use it primarily forensically I think. So that you can - if you want - if law enforcement runs across a body that's, say, been locked up in a trunk for two weeks, they can gauge the size of the maggots or the development of the blow flies and know exactly or close to exactly when that body was put in that trunk, given temperature conditions and all that kind of stuff. So that they - re-create those conditions at this little three-acre plot that they have in Tennessee. So you'll have bodies in all different kinds of situations, you know - buried in concrete and laid out in buildings. They build little buildings for these bodies to decompose. So it's, you know, primarily just a forensic study unit.
GROSS: And some of them are just, like, lying on the ground as if somebody had been, say, murdered in the woods and left there.
MANN: Right, yeah. And of course, they gauge the temperature and the humidity at the time that they put them out. So, of course, bodies decompose more quickly in the summer than in the winter and that kind of stuff, so they're - yeah - and if they're clothed or not clothed.
GROSS: So why did you want to photograph these decomposing bodies?
MANN: I have had a fascination with death, I think, that might be considered genetic for a long time. My father had the same affliction I guess. And his - I think the origin of his was the sudden death of his father. This is just a theory. We never talked about it. At the age of 16, my father's father dropped dead of a heart attack. And I think it changed the course of his life, and he became fascinated with death. He then became a medical doctor and obviously fought death tooth and nail for his patients. But I was surrounded in a household with the iconography of death. He was a very cultured man, and he was fascinated with the way death has been portrayed through the ages in all forms, I mean, from cave paintings to literature to everything. So the house was always filled with pictures, you know, of horses racing along with, you know, scythe-baring figures atop...
MANN: ...And, you know (laughter)? Yeah, just skulls...
MANN: ...And, you know, skeletal feet and that kind of stuff. So I think I just - I think it just - I picked it up by osmosis.
GROSS: So you saw things when you were photographing these decomposing bodies on the University of Tennessee's, quote, "Body Farm" that most people don't get to see. I mean, forensic analysts, police, homicide cops get to see it. But for the rest of us, when a body is in that state of decomposition, it's buried under the ground. It's not lying...
GROSS: ...On top of it. What surprised you most about what you witnessed?
MANN: One of the things that surprised me was how quickly I became inured to a dead - to the sight of a dead body. It was shocking. And it is to me even now because - and I think it was probably unique just to that moment. I think if I saw a dead body when I walk out of this NPR office, I think I would be just as shocked and horrified and it would - I would want to un-see it for the rest of my life. But there was something matter-of-fact about the way those bodies were laid out and how they were treated. I mean, they were a scientific experiment. And very quickly, I grew to see them that way in the same way that the graduate students were working with them. So that was one of the shocking things.
The first couple of moments, though, in - when I stood there - I tell the story in the book that I drove up with one of the professors. And he unlocked the gate, and I put my cameras and stuff inside. And then he said, see ya (ph), have a good time and just left me there with, you know, 75 or so bodies lying around. So there was a moment where I had to take a deep breath. And that's another thing - the smell is just unbelievable. But I had to sort of pull myself together and figure out a way to handle things I'd never seen before and never anticipated ever seeing - these bodies in various stages of decomposition - and still, some of them still in body bags.
GROSS: And physically, what surprised you most that you saw?
MANN: The grease smear that we ultimately end up being when - if you decompose above ground. It's - you can always tell where someone had gone all the way. There would be a few scattered bones and then this big circle of grease (laughter). Did you know that? Did you know that's where - how we end up? It's...
MANN: I think it's - there's a technical - adiposuria, I think, is this little sort of fatty-like stuff that we turn into.
GROSS: Did this study affect what you want done with your body?
MANN: I was inclined to do something with my body anyway before this, and I'm more inclined to than ever. I think it's a great service that those cadavers are doing, those former human - living humans, in offering their body.
GROSS: Offering their body for research, is that what you're talking about? That you want to donate your body for research?
MANN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, for science. Yeah, yeah. In any form, either as a cadaver in medical school or, you know, in the fields of the Body Farm or even just organ donation. I think this is just terrifically important. And so, I mean, I had a truly reverential feeling about the whole process and about the bodies, even though we got matter-of-fact about it. You know, the deep gratitude that you feel for those people who are willing to do that to their bodies was, you know, was palpable throughout the whole process. All the people who work there, you know, when you spoke to them, they had their body and they were very - it was very sweet and tender - if matter-of-fact. And, you know, I think that's how it should be approached when someone is willing to give their body to science.
GROSS: Your father knew that he was dying. Was it cancer?
MANN: He had brain cancer.
GROSS: And knowing as much about medicine as he did, he, I guess, knew what lay ahead for him at some point, didn't want to endure that and took an overdose of expired (laughter)...
MANN: (Laughter) I know.
GROSS: Excuse me for laughing, but...
MANN: (Laughter) No.
GROSS: ...It was expired medication, so it didn't have quite the bang, you know, that it probably should have. But he did die more slowly than he probably intended...
GROSS: ...But was unconscious during the process. And, you know, the family found him dying, not quite dead, and respected his wish and let him die. And you took a photograph of his body and beneath his body is plastic to kind of protect the couch. And knowing what you know about what happens after death, you understand why. And my impression is, from the book, that you're not sure whether your mother put that there after she found him or whether he put that there out of, you know, respect to not make a mess, to not leave a mess behind him. I'm just interested in your reflections on that. It's such - it strikes me as so interesting and probably representative of either your mother or your father's personality to think of that.
MANN: I know, I know. I - and this is where, you know, you really miss your parents. I'm sure she would've told me if I'd asked her. But, you know, we were struck when - and in fact, let me just say. I didn't really even notice the plastic until I looked closely at the picture and saw a little piece of it peeking out and I said, what the hell is that? What is that plastic? And then I realized what it - what had been done and who had done it, as you point out, the germane question. I have no idea, but I have a hunch it was my mother. And I don't know when she did it. I mean, did she - was she in on it? Did she know he was going to take the Seconal that day?
GROSS: Oh, you know - sure, I had not even thought of that as a possibility.
MANN: Yeah - see? - 'cause she went to the grocery store, and he took the Seconal then. They may have said, OK, I'll go to the grocery store. You take the Seconal. And then I'll come back and pretend to be surprised to find you, and I'll call Sally. That could well be how it happened. And then they might've done it together, you know, went to the closet, took the plastic off the dry cleaning and stuffed it under the bed, and then he laid down. I don't know, but it's such a - just trying to imagine that scene is - I don't know. It kind of breaks my heart actually.
GROSS: When you took the photo of his dead body on the couch with the plastic underneath it, what went through your mind about whether you should or shouldn't take the picture and what you wanted to show in the picture?
MANN: What went through my mind took an awfully long time. I remember sitting there for - it had to be hours before I decided to take the picture. First of all, I was traumatized 'cause I loved my father and over-romanticized him. That's one thing that I have discovered writing this book is that I over-romanticize my father and underappreciated my mother. But there I was, traumatized, looking at him. And he was so colorful. You'll see it in the book. He was wearing this gorgeous, maroon Brooks Brothers bathrobe. And there were flowers that daughter Jessie had picked and put around his body. And it still took me two hours to take the photograph, and it was just a snapshot. I didn't bring in the view camera and try and make a work of art. I just couldn't. I couldn't. There are things that I can't photograph.
GROSS: I'm wondering what emotional reaction you get looking at the picture. Like, I remember seeing my father's body after he died and it was so upsetting to see it, and I'm kind of glad that I won't be looking at him that way ever again. I have my memory of it, which I try not to think about a lot. I don't think I'd want to be able to look at it, you know, to have it in a box someplace.
MANN: You're saying you wouldn't want to have a photograph of it?
GROSS: Yeah, I don't think I'd want to actually see it again.
MANN: The photograph I like the best from that moment was the one that's just his hand. And I don't even think it's in the book, but I photographed just his hand with a little bracelet of flowers. And oddly enough, they were all weeds (laughter) like dandelions and that kind of stuff that Jessie - and he was a big gardener, so that's what's so ironic about it. But anyway, the photograph is just his hand with this bracelet of flowers around it. And to me, it's just so poignant and sweet. But, yeah, I did - I took the overall picture, too. I don't know. Again, it's sort of a documentary impulse just to have it. I don't find it that disturbing. I find the lifelessness and the gray quality the worst, the way the soul has so clearly left this body. That's the hardest part. But then that's the hardest part about death, whether you're looking at a picture or not.
GROSS: My guest is photographer Sally Mann. Her new memoir with photographs is called "Hold Still." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is photographer Sally Mann. She has a new memoir, which is called "Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs." You said that you realize, having written this memoir, that you over-romanticized her father and underappreciated your mother. You have a whole collection of slights that...
MANN: Maternal slights?
GROSS: Maternal slights that you have compiled from over the years. But your mother actually sounds quite impressive. You describe her as having stumped for Adlai Stevenson and chaired the Lexington, Va., Interracial Committee, founded the local League of Women Voters, stood up against the infamous Virginia poll tax. And then for 16 years, she ran the university bookstore in Washington and Lee, bringing in guest writers like Truman Capote, Howard Nemerov, Betty Friedan, Tom Wolfe, James Dickey. And it made me think, you know, you, I think, thought of her as kind of a little remote, a little detached when you were growing up, but made me think of how difficult it was then for a woman to have a career and be a mother. There wasn't the kind of infrastructure that there is now. I mean, not that there's a great infrastructure now for working mothers.
GROSS: But there's something. There's daycare centers.
MANN: You're just making me feel worse.
GROSS: Now, that was my goal.
MANN: No. I mean, she - it's so sad that I come to this revelation, which - everybody else loved my mother. But, you know, as her daughter, I was, you know - I come to it after she's died. And that, I think, was one of the hardest things about this - about writing this book - was this remarkable woman that I had never really gotten to know, never taken the time to get to know. And she didn't make it easy, so, I mean, I've got an out there to some extent. But, yeah, I mean, this - she fought the poll tax. That was really remarkable.
GROSS: So then your mother wrote in 1956 - and this was after you were already born - and I think this was in a journal. It might've been in a letter. I forget which, but she wrote about her husband, your father. I get the feeling that, really, I register only in a small part of Bob's life, that the creative world of his is the core of his being, and I'm there to admire and comment and see that he has everything he needs. That also made me just feel for her.
MANN: Doesn't that break your heart? And she says - and she says...
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, and how many women have gone through that, right?
MANN: I know. I know. She was - well, you know, they were a product of their era, I suppose. But the poignant thing is, like, the next line. He won't fix the Victrola, even though I've begged him to over and over - some line like that. It's just - oh, you go, oh, Mom. And he was - he was, I think, pretty oblivious of her. And I don't want to say contemptuous because he wasn't, but he - I guess he just ignored her, in a way. And she didn't need that. She had had such a rough, rough time. So he was - and I think we bought into that a little bit - we children. We - I don't want to speak for my brothers, but I don't think - we definitely underappreciated her.
GROSS: So because of your interest in death and your father's kind of obsession with death and because of, like, the Body Farm series of photos of decomposing bodies, I'd like to end our discussion by quoting what you have - or what somebody from your family has written in the tombstone over what you describe as the rank hole where we deposit our family's ashes. And you do know this by hearts?
MANN: I do.
GROSS: Why don't you say it then?
MANN: Want me to say it for you?
GROSS: You say it. Yeah.
MANN: What thou lovest well remains. The rest is dross. What thou lovest well is thy true heritage. It shall not be reft from thee. That's about the limit of my memorization, but that's it, right? Is that correct?
GROSS: Yeah, and whose poem is that?
MANN: It's Ezra Pound - "Canto," I believe, "81."
GROSS: And whose idea was it to put that excerpt of Pound on the tombstone - on the family tombstone?
MANN: I think it was - it was probably my father's. I had written my master's thesis on Ezra Pound on "The Cantos." And don't ask me about it. I don't remember anything about it. And he had gotten involved. He read it and got involved, and we had a lot of Pound discussions. So I think it was his idea.
GROSS: Well, I wish you a long life.
MANN: Oh, thank you. I seem to be doing fine so far.
GROSS: Sally Mann's new book is called "Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs." You can read an excerpt and see a slideshow of her photos on our website, freshair.npr.org. Tomorrow, I'll talk with former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. In 2013, when he got a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, he knew he wanted to keep it private and prevent headlines like this one.
TOM BROKAW: Tom Brokaw has cancer. Outcome uncertain.
GROSS: But now he's in remission and has written a new memoir about his diagnosis and treatment. We'll talk about living with cancer and his career in journalism. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.