INTERVIEW: “A Dialogue Between Steven Cantor & Sally Mann” (2004)

A Dialogue Between Steven Cantor & Sally Mann

QUESTION: The two of you began working together back in 1990 when Steven documented the making of the “Immediate Family” series, Sally’s incredibly intimate and candid portrayal of family life. The resulting short film, “Blood Ties”, was nominated for an Academy Award. Sally, what about Steven, at that early stage in his career, made you comfortable with the idea of allowing him access to your family and process?

SALLY MANN: Well, at first it didn’t seem like such a big deal. He sent me a persuasive letter (which I still have) proposing a youthfully ambitious documentary about artists who were afflicted by the censorial scourge of the day. He asked me for a 10-minute interview to evince solidarity for those who had gotten in trouble (Sturges, Mapplethorpe, Sims et al.) and how could I refuse that? So, I said yes but he’d have to do the filming at the cabin where we were spending the summer. “Throw me in the briar-patch,” he said and showed up the next week. It started as a very simple proposal and grew into a lifetime commitment.

STEVEN CANTOR: When I got to her farm, the first thing Sally showed me was a box containing her favorite pictures of her children that she had taken to that point. There were maybe a hundred or so pictures, which we spread out on a table, and the few minutes I spent looking at them are indelibly etched in my memory. I was so moved by Sally’s expression of childhood the way I remembered it – - as a complex and enigmatic time – - and not the innocent and naïve period adults often project it to be. I knew in that moment my larger idea for a censorship film was in trouble: I had just stumbled upon a great subject for a first documentary. And my subsequent encounters with her husband Larry and their three impossibly beautiful and imaginative kids only solidified that instinct. It was after that experience that the courtship of Sally as subject matter really began.

QUESTION: Steven, what about Sally’s work drew her to you as an artist and as a subject for your short?

STEVEN CANTOR: As Sally said, my original idea was to do a film about censorship of art, and for Sally’s work to be a small piece of it. I was initially drawn to Sally’s work because I figured pictures of naked children were bound to come under closer inspection. The cultural and political landscapes at that time were intertwined and pretty strange. The Cold War had just ended, and for a while artists were under tremendous scrutiny. It was as if scads of suddenly idle government workers had just decided that artists could replace Russians as targets of their investigations.

QUESTION: Sally, you live on a farm in Virginia and are a self-confessed “movie infant.” You are one of the most “un-Hollywood” people, yet you are one of the relatively few people on the planet who have actually attended the Oscars. What was that experience like for you?

SALLY MANN: I took Jessie and we were as prepared as we could be, given our country lifestyle. Jessie had an elegant long dress but I had some shopping to do… So we went to a department store and tried on a dress. At that moment there was an after-shock (from an earthquake a few days before) and because we were “wearing merchandise” they refused to let us leave the 3rd floor salon that was shaking like a leaf. We were both terrified and I was furious, to boot. We were going to be pancaked into a department store because I was wearing $300.00 worth of “merchandise”? In any case, the dress proved unimportant because my friends Ron and Heidi Winston opened their shop to us and, along with all the real stars, we picked out some nice shiny things to wear. We had a wonderful time as impostors at this thoroughly glam event, then flew home and resumed stacking the firewood.

STEVEN CANTOR: Well, that almost answers the question. The real truth is we entered the film with very modest expectations. I hoped it would be a stepping stone to film school (which it turned out to be – - I was accepted at USC) and I don’t think Sally thought anyone would ever see it. So all the fuss was entirely unexpected and thrilling. But once the actual Oscars event started, I am pretty certain that all we could think about was winning. When they announced our category, I could visibly see my heart pounding and when Christian Slater announced the award going to another film, the night and whole experience became instantly exhausting and anticlimactic. In the years since, I have come to know Sally as an intensely competitive person, so I can’t imagine that whole trip didn’t build as it did for me to the moment of that announcement and then nose-dive afterwards.

 

 

SALLY MANN: No, really, back then I felt I was cresting along on a somewhat hallucinatory wave, literally along for the ride. The winning or the losing wasn’t as important then as it would be now. I didn’t nose-dive, I just coasted down…it all seemed a bit unreal anyway.

QUESTION: Steven, what made you decide to revisit Sally’s work and process for “What Remains”?

STEVEN CANTOR – For about ten years, Sally and I joked about making a sequel, something like “Blood Ties II: They’re Back.” But beneath the joke was the fact that we both felt the first film was overly concentrated on the controversial element of Sally’s “Immediate Family” pictures, by dint of my inexperience (it was my first film ever), as well as the political climate of the day.

In the years since, I have come to marvel at the depth of Sally’s self-analysis and constant creative exploration. In fact, I’ve talked about this with her for hours, often just trying to better come to terms with my own creative process on certain films, or with my career in general. From this personal experience, I knew that other artists would benefit if I could capture more of Sally’s philosophy and process on film. Hopefully “What Remains” accomplishes that. In a way, “What Remains” is definitely a monkey off my back: I truly feel the film finally does justice to Sally and her work in ways the first film did not.

QUESTION: Sally, after working with Steven on “Blood Ties,” were you at all apprehensive about the prospect of working with him on a second film?

SALLY MANN: Steven and I had 10 years to bat around the notion of a new film, usually in a jocular way. In the years after “Immediate Family” (and perhaps because of the scrutiny it brought) I had become increasingly withdrawn from the public eye, seldom leaving the farm except to travel south and work on the landscape project in a deeply private and intense way. But after watching Steven’s work grow and evolve and his career mature, my eye-rolling responses to the notion of “Blood Ties 2” diminished. I began to get comfortable with the idea of the inherently invasive nature of this new film provided that it was true to life, honest in every respect and might prove comforting, inspirational or informative for young artists. (To wit: “If that bumbling rube can take pictures, well, hell, so can I!”)

Like publishing a book, a documentary is a permanent artifact of your time on the planet. I always keep in mind that the complexities and vagaries of an artists’ life are famously and quixotically difficult to capture…and even once captured, the finished product can only present the merest sliver of the “truth,” the most elusive concept of all.

QUESTION: Further, part of “What Remains” captures your husband Larry’s struggle with muscular dystrophy. Was it difficult for you and Larry to talk about his condition or have it documented on film?

SALLY MANN: Not so easy for either of us, but Larry is the one who is bearing the brunt of it. But, because he is the bravest and strongest person I know, he faces it head-on.

QUESTION: Sally, your work in “What Remains” confronts death in a very direct way, using the corpse of your dog, Eva, and the corpses of human strangers at a decay research facility as subjects. What connection and/or distinction did you feel existed between photographing remains of both a personal and an impersonal association?

SALLY MANN: It was odd. Sometimes just the sight of a tiny tuft of Eva’s hair would cause me to break into tears, but my rational mind told me that these things were not Eva, they were just objects, things divested of all life. That’s the tough part about dealing with death: its absolute finality. You’re DEAD, caput, over, gone, vanished, defunct, you’ve shuffled off that coil, you’re forever not there. So, bearing all this in mind, you’d think that photographing the dead bodies of total strangers wouldn’t be so hard to do, right? But it was hard. It was not the smell or even the sometimes horrible sights but it was the human-ness that remained in spite of death…they still had stories to tell and I wanted to hear them…I wanted to ask the dead bodies, “How the hell did you get here? How did you lose your leg? Why did you have that terrible tattoo put on your shoulder? Do you really think that hair color suits you?” In spite of being stone cold dead, there still was the presence of their lives and that was what made it difficult.

QUESTION: Steven, in watching “What Remains,” the audience gets an intimate look at Sally’s process and her relationship to the corpses. How did the corpses affect you? Did any other of your crewmembers participate in that particular shoot? If so, what was it like for you and your team?

STEVEN CANTOR: My director of photography, Paul Dokuchitz, and I shot much of this film on our own, and the forensic study facility was one such instance – - it was just the two of us. Paul first worked with me on “Blood Ties,” and we have collaborated consistently ever since. Without having ever discussed it, I can definitively say that, of the hundreds of shoots we’ve been on together, that one was the most difficult. I’m still not sure how Sally manages to seem so unaffected – in fact, impervious – to the corpses. I spent the whole day trying to follow Sally’s lead and act nonchalant and curious, all while suppressing a look of sheer horror – at what I was seeing, but even more so at what I was smelling. In case you don’t understand why movie cops sometimes vomit at murder scenes, you would after being around decaying corpses for a while. Paul and I went through three boxes of Altoids on our way home but there is an actual aftertaste that stays with you literally for days.

 


QUESTION: Sally, how would you best describe the contribution of the “What Remains” series to what you refer to in the film as the “cultural iconography of death”?

SALLY MANN: …the merest footnote.

QUESTION: Steven, do you think your film “What Remains” makes a similar contribution?

STEVEN CANTOR: It’s almost impossible to answer that sort of question about one’s own work. It was not our intention to do anything so lofty or make such a contribution. We both just wanted to tell our own specific stories and share them with an audience.

QUESTION: Sally, your children were the centerpieces of “Immediate Family.” You also used photographs of their faces as punctuation to the “What Remains” series. How was it different, both in terms of the process and finished product, to include Jessie, Emmett and Virginia as subjects in two series with such disparate themes?

SALLY MANN: In the photographs of their faces they were confined to a rigid, almost 19th century, brace which held their heads in place. The only avenue for expression was through their eyes and the tonality of their musculature… Each exposure was, on average, 2 minutes long and the child had to sustain the emotional territory he/she had staked out for the entire time. Doubt, exhaustion, humor, and dedication played across the features during that exposure which, perhaps, is why they have the multi-faceted aspect that they do. In the earlier work , which was narrative, their gestures, dress, postures and the backgrounds could inform the image so it was quite a different process…it was the difference between My Dinner with Andre and Lord of The Rings in terms of supporting materials. (note: See, a movie reference!)

QUESTION: The controversy surrounding “Immediate Family” is well over a decade old. Sally, what is your attitude toward the controversy at this stage in your career? Do you think it’s time people moved on?

SALLY MANN: What controversy?

STEVEN CANTOR: Well, that may sound facetious or disingenuous but is actually right. There was no controversy. We kept waiting for it to blow-up and next thing you know Sally was starting her next series and the time for trouble had passed.

QUESTION: Steven, when you were filming “Blood Ties,” did you in any way anticipate that “Immediate Family” would be controversial?

STEVEN CANTOR: I think we all thought it would be significantly controversial. It was the day of the Mapplethorpe uproar; parents were being arrested for taking naked snapshots of their children, and one had her kids taken away from her; Jock Sturges had his whole life turned upside down by the FBI; Alfonse d’Amato ripped-up a Serrano photograph on the floor of the Senate. It was a crazy time, and Sally seemed to be stepping into the eye of the storm. The funny thing is, her pictures were received very acceptingly and non-controversially – that word has come to be associated with Sally, but at the time there was really very little public outrage. On the contrary, the pictures were widely hailed and embraced and purchased en masse.

 


SALLY MANN: But, in the way of mushrooming misperceptions, the facts haven’t gotten in the way and there is still a generalized sense that I was either arrested, threatened, denounced on the Senate floor or investigated, none of which happened, of course. In fact absolutely nothing happened to me except a radio personality in Minneapolis ranted about the pictures, some feminist critics tut-tutted and an antediluvian reviewer in North Carolina waggled his finger at me for the nudity.

STEVEN CANTOR: I still wonder if maybe you somehow managed to slip under the radar or something. We have never really discussed it, but why do you think there was ultimately so little fanfare around your exhibition and subsequent book of those pictures?

QUESTION: What separated you from Jock Sturges at the time? The fact that you were the kids’ mother?

SALLY MANN: I don’t think I slipped under the radar, I know I was very much in the radar but they chose not to come after me. One of the first things I did when I heard about Jock’s situation was to make an appointment with the head of the FBI agency that had conducted that raid. I went up to Quantico with Larry and the kids and we met with him, showed him the prints and asked him point blank if they were going to come after me. He said he was familiar with the work, it had been brought to his attention and, no, they were not going to do anything to me. He made some comment similar to Justice Potter Stewart’s to the effect that he knew child pornography and this was not it. So, having that assurance I felt safe from that quarter, but there was still the religious right. Our local Pat Robertson was one of the right-wing Christian preachers who was loudly condemning the work of many artists, but I was hoping that Mr. Robertson might be cognizant of a peculiar relationship that obtained between us: my father very likely delivered him and had been his family’s physician when Mr. Robertson was a child.

In the end, I think the fact that I was the children’s mother, the fact that I was clearly a fighter and would have been able to garner a lot of legal support (my brilliant high-profile lawyer Richard Sauber offering his services in case anything should happen to me) and the fact that the pictures were “reality based”—i.e. the nudity was not something imposed on the children but was a natural state of their summer lives, all contributed to my security.

QUESTION: Sally, you are currently working on a series of nude studio portraits of Larry, focusing on the aging male body. The portraits pay particular attention to the atrophying of Larry’s musculature caused by his illness. To what extent has your experience shooting “What Remains” informed this current work, and when can we expect to see it?

SALLY MANN: At the heart of “What Remains” is the question of decay and, I suppose if you get right down to it that’s at the heart of any portrait as well, not just Dorian Gray’s. Perhaps the instinct to make a portrait is based on an effort to preserve a human, physical moment that, with the next 30th of a second after the shutter clicks shut, has already faded, changed and, bluntly, decomposed…It’s an odd thought… anyway, after I show the faces at Gagosian this spring, the studio work of Larry will be the next show, 2007 or early 2008, I’d imagine.

QUESTION: Steven, you have documented Sally’s work for nearly 15 years. Five alone were spent making this film. How, as an observer, would you describe her evolution as an artist? Would you consider revisiting Sally’s work yet again for a future project?

STEVEN CANTOR: When I first met Sally, she was in the midst of “Immediate Family,” the most moving bodies of work I have ever seen. It feels strange for me to comment on her evolution, as she hit a sort of artistic peak in that work – although certainly not her only one since then, as evidenced by her death work. One thing that impressed me then and continues to influence me is Sally’s bravery and focus in approaching new subject matter.

In a parallel and quite unexpected way, “Immediate Family” was defining for both of us. While it brought Sally to the mainstream public conscience and the forefront of the art photography world, it led me to Sundance and the Oscars and established me as a documentary filmmaker at a time in my career when I was still trying to figure out which direction to go. Such early success can be difficult to live up to – as Sally says in the film, “Your next picture has to be better,” and given the accolades we both received, that was not an easy task.

I will admit to taking my cues from Sally, who had a very basic and workmanlike attitude – she simply kept taking pictures that felt natural to her. Where once her kids had occupied much of the frame of some glorious southern landscapes, now the human element was gone and the landscape itself took center stage. Where she could have searched for another series that would have allowed her to ride the wave of social controversy and button-pushing, she instead spent six years taking wistful, contemplative pictures of the land. While it was such a natural progression for her and resulted in a reinvention and solidification of her reputation, it was still a risky move that could easily have led to criticism and disappointment from some of her fans and collectors.

Sally’s landscapes are at once a glorious triumph and a marked departure from her earlier work. My personal favorite adorns my dining room wall and serves as a constant inspiration to follow my heart and take risks.

 

ASX CHANNEL: Sally Mann

For more of American Suburb X, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

(All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)

Posted in South and tagged , , .