The Mother of Beauty

August 14, 2016

From Sally Mann's "Body Farm" Series (2000-2001)


Death is the mother of beauty…
-- Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

Photographer Sally Mann first came to prominence a generation ago with images of her three semi-feral children playing naked on their remote family farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  Her work created a sensation, although not in a way she would have anticipated.  She was denounced in some quarters as a child pornographer, even though the images were no more pornographic than the naked cherubim decorating Renaissance religious paintings.  The controversy mostly demonstrated that innocence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  

More recently, Mann has courted controversy of a different sort by photographing rotting corpses at the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility’s “body farm” in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Surrounded by a razor-wire fence, the 2.5-acre wooded facility is used to study the effects of decomposition on some 40 cadavers that have been left exposed to the elements for extended periods of time.   The research findings help pinpoint a time of death and other circumstances of interest to criminal investigators, based on such factors as body bloating, marbling and slippage of skin, as well as the actions of insects and scavenging animals.  These phenomena are not for the squeamish.

Mann claimed to be unaffected by the sights and smells she encountered at the body farm, which she photographed on assignment for the New York Times.  The account she gave in her memoir, Hold Still, is noteworthy for its almost clinical detachment:

Pausing by a body and waiting until the rustling of leaves quieted, I could hear the maggots noisily eating, a sound sometimes like the crackling of Rice Krispies in milk and other times, like raw hamburger being formed by hand into patties.  The bulging skin roiled with their movements beneath it.  In one instance recorded at the body farm, the industrious maggots reduced a man by forty pounds in just twenty-four hours, expanding themselves from the size (forgive the culinary comparison) of uncooked grains of rice to a plump macaroni. 

Death is not pretty, although you would never know it from the rituals normally surrounding it.  We do our best to prettify corpses, dressing them up in their best suit of clothes and subjecting them to the embalmer’s art before they are laid to rest in silk-upholstered mahogany splendor.  Human beings have been burying their dead for at least 100,000 years.  Although there are no written records going back that far, we can safely assume the custom arose to spare loved ones the sights and smells that Mann encountered at the body farm.  Embalming and mummification have long been practiced to counter the effects of putrefaction.  Through much of the 19th century, the recently departed were memorialized in post-mortem photographs, many of infants or small children captured in life-like poses in a crib or cradled in their mothers’ arms.  The images might be hand-tinted to put a blush on pallid checks or otherwise retouched to open eyes that were closed in death.  Memorial photographs are now regarded as a morbid preoccupation of our Victorian ancestors; indeed, actual depictions of dead bodies in any setting these days are, for the most part, scrupulously avoided.  British sociologist Geoffrey Gorer argues in his essay, “The Pornography of Death,” that we have merely replaced the Victorian squeamishness about sex with a modern-day taboo against death. 

However inadvertently, Mann already had experience transgressing taboos when she undertook the assignment from the New York Times to photograph the body farm.  But notwithstanding the subject matter, there is nothing lurid about her treatment of the dead.  She uses an antique bellows view camera and an even older wet-plate collodion process on glass negatives that gives a dark, primordial look to her images.  When seen through her lens, the bodies are merely another feature of the landscape in which she finds them -- and their decay just another fact of nature.  And if we do not avert our gaze, we discover that death is not an end but a transformation in which the earth gradually reclaims its own.  Whatever the final destination of the soul, our mortal remains remain.  We find ourselves back in the place where, according to our founding myths, we were formed from the dust of the ground.  As God tells Adam, whose name is a play on the Hebrew word for earth, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.”