Trigger Warning: dead bodies
Mann has a gift for provoking strong reactions ("I like pushing buttons") and her pictures of rotting corpses certainly do that. She took them at the University of Tennessee's anthropological facility at Knoxville, aka the "body farm", where human decomposition is studied scientifically. The bodies are mostly left in an outdoor setting and lie there for months or even years. In Steven Cantor's 2006television documentary about Mann, she is observed happily wandering from cadaver to cadaver, prodding this body part and stroking that one, unfazed by the maggots and reek of decay.
"Death makes us sad, but it can also make us feel more alive," she says. "I couldn't wait to get there. The smell didn't bother me. And you should see the colours – they're really beautiful. As Wallace Stevens says, death is the mother of beauty."
"There's a new prudery around death. We've moved it into hospital, behind screens, and no longer wear black markers to acknowledge its presence. It's become unmentionable."
There are various sources for Mann's preoccupation with mortality. The shooting of an escaped prisoner in the grounds of her farm in Lexington. The death of her greyhound, Eva, whose bones – retrieved from the cage in which Mann had buried her – she later photographed ("That was when I learned how efficient death is. After 14 months, the skeleton had been picked completely clean"). Or, years before, the death of her father, for which she was present and which set her wondering, "Where did all of that him-ness go?"
images via Sally Mann's website