Capturing an artist’s life and work is a tricky proposition for a filmmaker, as the dozens of unsatisfying biopics and in-the-studio-with docs out there suggest. The creative process is mysterious, and may or may not have much to do with an artist’s daily travails. How extraordinary, then, to happen across Steven Cantor’s What Remains, as intimate a cinematic record of a visual artist as you’re likely to see on screen.
After Sally Mann published Immediate Family, her 1992 book of portraits that featured photographs of her three prepubescent children nude, she was set upon by the forces of prudery; Cantor shot “Blood Ties,” a documentary short about Mann, her work, and the controversy (it’s included in the extras menu on this new disc). Nearly 10 years later, Cantor returns to find Mann’s children now seemingly well-adjusted grown-ups and their mother famous and wealthy. But, as Cantor’s camera rolls, it’s clear that her life is no more charmed than anyone else’s: Her husband Larry has been diagnosed with a degenerative disease which will someday kill him. Though no one involved makes a blatant connection, the death looming over her life appears to inspire Mann toward work revolving around mortality; Cantor follows along as she hauls her glass-plate camera around to Civil War battlefields and the University of Tennessee’s Body Farm, where she shoots rotting corpses.
Mann is an ideal subject—interesting, articulate, and dignified, yet more than willing to let Cantor’s camera go seemingly anywhere. Setbacks both personal and professional are laid out in full on the screen, and while the film never breaks a stately pace, a surprisingly cohesive narrative emerges as Mann struggles not only with art and inspiration, but also the kind of life that any of us leads.