Sally Mann is a great subject for a documentary. She's articulate, forceful, radiantly self-involved. She's also beautiful (think Amanda Peet 20 years from now), and her work is photogenic, too.
In 2001, Time magazine named her America's best photographer . That's a fatuous designation, to be sure, but it does indicate Mann's prominence. Even those immune to the otherworldliness of her black-and-white images (what admirers find "powerful" in her work, others might call "creepy") must concede that she has a distinctive and unsettling vision.
Mann's photographs are another reason she's such a great subject. There's long been a whiff of scandal attached to them. She first came to prominence in the late '80s with her book "At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, " followed by "Immediate Family. " The former offered a frank vision of girls on the cusp of adolescence. "Family" included nude portraits of Mann's children (she has two daughters and a son) and some poses that might seem playful in person but looked provocative on the page. More recently, Mann has photographed decomposing bodies.
"I really wasn't trying to push anyone's buttons," she says in "What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann," which airs tonight on Cinemax. Whether intentional or not, button-pushing is central to her art. Among several reasons "What Remains" isn't the great documentary Mann merits is its unwillingness to examine Mann's capacity to provoke. Filmmaker Steven Cantor acknowledges it, of course -- that's what makes a film about her bankable -- but in such a way as to produce neither heat nor light.
Instead, "What Remains" wallows in the almost parodically Ralph Lauren-ad lifestyle led by Mann and her family on their Shenandoah Valley farm. Photographic gear gets piled into a Volvo wagon or Chevy Suburban. Greyhounds frolic about. The Manns dress in elegantly ratty casual wear -- except for when they go riding; then they don boots and equestrian helmets. Everything is just so in a rigidly informal way -- not unlike her photographs, actually.
"What Remains" isn't a celebrity gushfest, the way PBS' recent "American Masters" profile of Annie Leibovitz was. For one thing, there are no big names. It focuses exclusively on Mann, her family, and a few friends. But in its own lower-key way it trades in unthinking adulation as much as the Leibovitz did. There's no tension in its treatment of Mann's photographs, no argument as to their merits or willingness to engage with the challenges they present. Instead, there's just a slack acceptance of Mann and her work.
Every once in a while something unexpected comes along. Mann's husband discusses his muscular dystrophy. Mann describes the gunning down on their property of an escaped convict. She weeps when a New York gallery cancels her show. Best of all, there's a wondrous moment early on when we catch a glimpse of the upside-down image on the ground glass of Mann's old-fashioned view camera. It's a precious, startling instant, one that conveys the magic Mann's photographs aspire to and, sometimes, achieve.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.