Sally Mann and the Body Farm

Salon 615 is the rock star literary event to end all literary events.  The list of past authors reads like the New York Times bestseller list:  Cheryl Strayed, Augusten Burroughs, Lorrie Moore,  Donna Tartt, and so on.  The continuing event is a partnership between Nashville Public Library, Nashville Public Library Foundation, Parnassus Books and Humanities Tennessee; Parnassus Books is the Indie bookstore owned by writer Ann Patchett herself.  We Nashvillians consider ourselves very lucky.

Recently, the Salon featured Ann Patchett interviewing her friend and photographer Sally Mann; Mann’s most recent book is her memoir Hold Still.  Both authors are strikingly candid, conversing on stage as if they were having an intimate conversation, and not speaking in front of a crowd of two hundred.

Though Mann is infamous for photos of her children that some deemed too ‘sensuous,’ she has a large, beautiful body of work and has taken on projects that not many could stomach.  In Proud Flesh, she focused on her husband and his struggle with muscular dystrophy.  In What Remains,  the focus is on decomposition, very literally.

Somewhere in Knoxville, TN, there lies a 2.5 acre wooded plot of land, guarded by razor wires.  This is the original Body Farm, founded in 1971, used to study decomposition of human remains.  As a college student at the University of Tennessee in the 1990’s, I heard stories of the Body Farm, and for twenty years believed it to be a rumor.  My college boyfriend and his friends tried to locate the Body Farm many times, and were thankfully unsuccessful.

Sally Mann was asked during the lecture about the experience of taking photos at the Body Farm;  she said at first, she didn’t even see the bodies.  Once attuned to finding them, she acclimated to the farm after the first four or five bodies.  Nervous laughter from the audience over this.  But really, who has the balls to go into such a facility and take photographs?

Mann goes where no artist dare go— and where no person is allowed to go, actually.  UT Knoxville Forensic Anthropology Center states expressly on their website that there are no tours of the outdoor research facility given.SallyMann-02


You may think the photos are gross, frightening, too much to handle.  But Mann has a talent, and though there is a twinge of sadness in the photos, mostly what you’ll find is a sense of grace, dignity.  What Remains is at once private and open, graceful and organic.

I turned to my friend who accompanied me to the Salon, and told her that for years, I’d thought the Body Farm was a rumor, an Urban Legend of sorts.  She laughed and shared a surprising secret:  when she dies, she too will become a part of the Body Farm.



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