Thursday, March 8, 2012


In her book What Remains, Sally Mann* includes a series of photographs she took on her rural Virginia property (see 1st image here). They read as quiet, inoffensive, calming...until you know the story behind them. Mann explains:
"Because of a big bend in the river, our farm has water on three sides, a classic stronghold. This fact, coupled with the long views from our house, explains why at first we had no locks on the doors. When the sheriff called to suggest locking up against an escaped prisoner, I was briefly amused by the impossibility of this, then paralyzed by bogey-man-under-the-bed fear. The fear was appropriate: the prisoner, a felon with sex offenses on his record, had escaped custody with two pistols and a shotgun. When he reached the river below our house he swam it, forcing his pursuers to backtrack by car to the nearest bridge. I was alone on the farm except for this wet, unhappy man with the guns. He must have ditched the shotgun because by the time he approached the house he only had the pistols. Ducking behind a tree, he put one of them to his head. His shot was tinnily distinguishable from the rifle shots of the police who had appeared at the last moment. He fell among the stumps and bracken, just a kid after all, my son’s age, bled out in the milky winter light. When it was over and the trucks and cars and helicopters had cleared out, I walked over to the place where he died. The underbrush was matted down, there were patches of blue and orange spray paint marking coordinates of some kind, yellow crime tape hung on the wild rose, and there at the base of a hickory tree was a glistening pool of dark blood. I was tempted to touch its perfectly tensioned surface. Instead, as I stared, it shrank perceptibly, forming a brief meniscus before leveling off again, as if the earth had taken a delicate sip. Death has left for me its imperishable mark on an ordinary copse of trees in the front yard. But would a stranger, coming upon it a century hence, sense the sanctity of the death-inflected soil?"
Similar feelings are evoked in the series "Unmarked" by Stephen Chalmers (see slideshow here). He describes how the photos were inspired on a hiking date near Seattle:

"We had this fantastic time; it was early in our relationship and everything was super happy," Chalmers says. But later, a friend pointed out that the hike had been right where serial killer Ted Bundy disposed of his victims. And just that little kernel of information really changed how I felt about what was otherwise a really fantastic early date. I was struck by how my experience of this place was so changed by knowing the history of the location."

The example above is an interesting photo on its own, but is given thought-provoking depth and eeriness when the title - the victim's name - is researched. This is the Willamette River in Oregon, where the lifeless body of 19-year-old Linda Slawson was discarded after she was brutally victimized by a serial killer.

*One of many photographers I have blogged about, including Hippolyte Bayard, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon Nadar, Lewis Hine, Charles Jones, Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Ralph Morse, Annie Leibovitz, Jeffrey Silverthorne and Elizabeth Heyert, Joel-Peter Witkin, François Brunelle, Richard Nickel and Ian Ference, Rosamond Purcell, and Nick Garbutt.

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