Still Lives: Capturing the Essence of Photographers Sally Mann and Robert Frank


At Warm Springs, a photograph by Sally Mann, subject of Steven Cantor's What Remains

One is a 50-something Southern woman known for her atmospheric, almost mystical portraits of her children and nature, an artist whose photos are eerily haunting and steeped in the Gothic moodiness that characterizes the literature of her region. The other is a mildly irritable Jewish immigrant in his mid-80s, a man who brought a new vision of the American people to the collective consciousness. Yet they are two of the most influential American photographers of the second half of the century, whose work exposes different aspects of our nation, our world and the human condition.

Two filmmakers recently set out to capture the lives and work of these two artists via the documentary form. The New York-based Steven Cantor, whose work has taken him everywhere from the Amish countryside to post-punk band the Pixies' dressing room, produced and directed What Remains, an evocative exploration into Sally Mann's most recent work and the shape of her life as a middle-aged woman. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Briton Gerald Fox completed Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank. The films delve deep into the artists' characters and life stories while visually reflecting the aesthetic sensibility of their photography. Both directors have proved that, while the task of exploring what is perhaps that most mystified of human creatures--"the artist"--is challenging, it is not impossible. Cantor and Fox have crafted two very different films that reflect the interior of their subjects via the exterior look of the film, enhancing not only the artists' body of work, but our understanding of the artists and human experience as a whole.

Cantor actually began his illustrious career with Mann. After college, working as a production assistant on MTV's House of Style, Cantor realized that directing was both a desirable and conceivable goal. At the time, there was media buzz about art and censorship, with photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe being skewered as perverse and indecent. In 1993, Cantor decided to make a documentary exploring this issue and, after happening upon Mann's landmark Immediate Family series, which featured her young children, often nude, in natural environments, he drove down to her Virginia farm to meet her and her family.

In the process of filming, Cantor was mesmerized by the way Mann's work bestowed grace and dignity on the childhood experience. He decided to scrap the broader film and make a short feature solely about Mann. In addition, the larger issue stopped being relevant to his subject; despite a cover story in The New York Times Magazine chronicling the controversy over the Immediate Family photos, Mann managed to escaped the censorship witch hunt relatively unscathed. This decision to shift focus proved a smart one--the resulting short, Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, was nominated for an Academy Award.

Spending the next decade cultivating his career as a director and producer, Cantor never abandoned the idea of returning to Mann to make a full-length film. When he finally found the time, Mann happened to be embarking on her own project, What Remains, a collection of photographs documenting sites of death, including Antietam, a Civil War battlefield. 

The film What Remains both tracks Mann's illustrious early career and focuses on her present life and art. Mann's children are grown now; Cantor says he wanted "to wait until the kids were old enough to really know what they were doing in the film." And she has aged gracefully, maintaining an almost symbiotic relationship with her land and husband (now suffering from muscular dystrophy). As is evident in the film, "She's so good at self-analyzing her process and really understanding what she's trying to do with her work," Cantor notes. It didn't hurt that the two have built a strong relationship over 15 years.

Cantor's career as an artist had also evolved between films; What Remains was a homecoming for him, a fact that makes the film more intimate and natural than it might have been.

For months, the filmmaker traveled back and forth between his home and Mann's, shooting some 200 hours of footage. Like Mann's photography, the film possesses a ghostly, ethereal quality, with nuanced tones of greys and lighting that seems almost heavenly. Cantor elicits fine footage both of Mann's children, now poised, mature and very articulate about the way their mother's photographs of them shaped their lives in positive ways, and of her husband, long her support system. He captures the family enjoying dinner and Mann photographing her husband naked, riding her horses and developing her stills. He also records her at her most vulnerable, sobbing when the New York gallery premiere show of What Remains is suddenly cancelled. "With Sally, it's like she's putting herself through therapy," Cantor says.

Even with the filmmakers' presence, there is a palpable loneliness to Mann's persona, which is reflected in her art. Yet her work asks the most basic of existential questions about life and death. So, too, does the film. That there is no true beginning or end to the story reflects the ever-evolving creative process. Both Mann's photos and Cantor's film continually explore ideas about everything from childhood to aging and death. Both versions of What Remains become not only a meditation on an extraordinary photographer's work and process, but also an investigation into mortality. The documentary will air on HBO in early 2007.

Like Mann, Robert Frank is an island of sorts. Currently living his twilight years in the sparse desolation of Nova Scotia, he shares with this Southern artist an isolation that reflects sadness, weariness and wisdom. This, however, is where the similarities end. Whereas Mann is magnetic and welcoming, a charismatic artist with a romantic aura, Frank comes across as a practical workingman, a salt-of-the-earth sociologist. Mann leans towards fabulism in her work; Frank is vérité all the way.

The son of Swiss Jews, Frank survived Nazi-occupied Europe, and after apprenticing with a fashion photographer there, emigrated to New York City in his early 20s. With his first wife and his camera, Frank snapped his way through Wales, Paris and London. In 1956, he produced his (and arguably, 20th century photography's) most influential work, The Americans, which he shot on a months-long cross-country road trip financed by a Guggenheim Foundation grant. Frank subsequently became aligned with the Beat Generation, directing the film Pull My Daisy, a cult classic narrated by Jack Kerouac and starring Allen Ginsberg. He also directed the infamous, unreleased Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues.

Iconoclastic, crotchety and at times utterly unpleasant, Frank has long been opposed to discussing his work, refusing to give interviews. This presented a considerable challenge to British filmmaker Gerald Fox, who has made over 40 films about fine art for Channel 4, Bravo and The South Bank Show. Perhaps a glutton for punishment, Fox, egged on by Tate Modern Museum director Vicente Todoli, decided to try. After numerous phone calls, Frank finally consented to the project and filming began.

The result is an engaging, gorgeous exploration of Frank's art and life, and the symbiosis between them. In his director's statement, Fox writes that his vision of the film was informed by his realization that Frank's films are "maps of his journey through his life and show us elements and incidents in his ongoing everyday life as well as exploring the conflicts, tragedies, sadness and joys that make up his own biography." That in mind, Fox saw his film not as a personal creation, but a collaboration with his subject. Ideally, he says, "The different elements would be so well integrated cinematically that it would be impossible to define where our film ends and his begins."

Fox shot mainly handheld on various film stocks, both black-and-white and color, and his improvisational, point-and-shoot aesthetic matches the attitude and look of Frank's work. According to the filmmaker, "I wanted to find a stylistic approach and visual texture that mirrored his own work as it evolved over a long career." The film begins in a desolate East Village lot, the neighborhood that was once the epicenter of American bohemianism. Frank, looking on, details his disgust with gentrification and the yuppie takeover. He also revisits, from the top of a bus, his beloved city--the kinetic, windows-eye-view of New York mimicking Frank's roadside view of America in 1956. He also returns to Coney Island for the first time since he photographed it in 1958. The film truly becomes a dialogue between then and now, with Frank engaging the settings that shaped his work and self, while the original photographs serve as visual markers. That Frank was a filmmaker too proved helpful when Fox had the inevitable production crises; Frank was not only sympathetic, he tried to help.

The film also explores the photographer's relationship with his second wife, the eccentric artist June Leaf, a wild-haired woman every bit as dramatic and performative as Frank is not. In addition, the film addresses the personal loss that has informed Frank's life. As we find out near the end of the film, the photographer lost both of his children in very different tragedies. His son, Pablo, took his own life after a long bout with mental illness. His idealistic do-gooder daughter, Andrea, was killed in a plane crash following a visit to Guatemala. Though at times Frank displays his antisocial side (in one moment, he turns to the camera and says, "I'm not an actor. I can't go through this shit. It's completely against my nature what's happening here."), he is ultimately a loveable, unlikely artist, a quirky grandfather who delights with his endless reserve of stories.

Fox writes that he wanted to document his photographer subject in a "wholly cinematic fashion." Yet, how to use a visual form that is defined by movement to document and art defined by stillness? Both Fox and Conrad succeed via the same techniques--by transforming the process of still image-making into a kinetic narrative by turning photos into part of a life story, and ultimately, by realizing that the meaning of their subjects' life and art is about more than one singular vision or life experience.

 

Danielle DiGiacomo is a Brooklyn-based journalist and filmmaker who is currently editing her first feature, Island to Island: Returning Home from Rikers. She works as the Documentary Film Coordinator for Indiepix.net.

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