Filmmaker Steven Cantor's 2005 feature-length documentary What Remains is a subjective, intimate look at the life and career of American photographer Sally Mann. Mann was named Time magazine's "Photographer of the Year" for 2001, but she is most noted for her 1992 black & white collection Intimate Family which included many nude portraits of her three children, including both shots of spontaneous innocence and of contrived provocation. The collection was generally well received within the arts community, but was broadly condemned as indecent elsewhere.
What Remains includes old and new material. The documentary benefits from incorporation of much of Cantor's 1994, Oscar-nominated documentary short Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, made during the height of the media controversy surrounding Intimate Family. However, it also includes a lot of new footage of Mann, and her family and work.
What Remains takes its name from the eponymous 2003 collection of photographs that Mann was working on during principal photography for the documentary. The photos in this collection are principally of landscapes touched by death, especially battlefields, and of corpses in various states of decay. This work, it seems, in some part serves as a means for Mann to deal with a crisis of mortality in her own life: her husband was diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy in 1994 that is slowly but inexorably ravaging his body.
What Remains feels deeply personal. Cantor and Mann come off as close confidants. Mann lets down her guard with Cantor and shares her hopes and fears, but this intimacy between filmmaker and subject seems to also prevent Cantor from objectively considering his subject. Cantor captures Mann's self-doubts, but he fails to critically examine her body of work. For example, when a New York gallery exhibition of Mann's collection What Remains is abruptly canceled, Cantor leaves Mann's prospective that the cancellation reflects shortcomings in the gallery, rather than the work itself, unchallenged.
What Remains is so closely focused on Mann that it feels claustrophobic and unbalanced at times. Of the few figures outside of Mann's family shown, none are authoritative, and those few that are critical are excerpted in ways that undermine their legitimacy. Although all of Mann's children appear on camera, and none voice criticism of their mother, these interviews seem less than complete and candid, and generate as many questions as they answer. It may be that Cantor simply chose to be diffident of Mann's children's privacy, but I would not be surprised to learn that the Sally Mann exercised a veto over the editing of the film.
What Remains is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and is enhanced for widescreen. The new footage was recorded on digital video, while the archival material is mostly Super-16. There's a lot of grain in the new footage and varying levels of sharpness, but the image is generally good.
A serviceable 2.0 stereo with no noticeable dropouts or distortions is provided.
Extras include Cantor's Oscar-nominated 1994 documentary short Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (30 min.), deleted scenes (15 min.), excerpts from Mann's presentation at a photojournalism conference held in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2003 (6 min.), and photo galleries from three of Mann's collections consisting of three photos from Deep South, 13 from Immediate Family, and 25 from What Remains.
What Remains is an unabashedly subjective look at the life and work of controversial American photographer Sally Mann. Whether through self-censorship or otherwise, Cantor provides a sanitized, sympathetic, and wholly uncritical view of this controversial artist that leaves this viewer feeling that the picture is less than complete. Though a more expansive and objective view would have been welcome, viewers interested in photography generally, or the work of Sally Mann specifically should enjoy this.