Humanity has a fascination with death that stems from a fear of the unknown and the inevitable. This fascination is often played out in television and films where characters are subjected to horrible, bloody deaths (as in horror movies) or perhaps death from a prolonged sickness (as in a drama film). This idea of viewing the process of death, and especially viewing the dead in their altered state, is the subject of photographer Sally Mann’s selection of photographs entitled “Body Farm.” According to NPR, Mann went to the University of Tennessee’s forensic anthropology research facility to photograph the decomposing bodies being studied by the graduate students. Mann’s photographs are an attempt to examine the decaying human form in a way that brings a haunting beauty to the process of decomposition. The photographs are hard to look at, but certainly echo our culture’s obsession with experiencing death through viewing it. Mann stated, “There was something matter-of-fact about the way those bodies were laid out and how they were treated. I mean, they were a scientific experiment and very quickly I grew to see them that way…I had to sort of pull myself together and figure out a way to handle things I had never seen before and never anticipated ever seeing — these bodies in various stages of decomposition.”
In The Woman in White, Walter Hartright views the dead bodies of both of the men who have caused such horrible suffering for Laura, Marian, and himself. First, when Sir Percival is burned in the fire, Walter is called upon to identify him: “I looked up, along the cloth; and there at the end, stark and grim and black, in the yellow light–there, was his dead face” (Collins 521). So Walter gazes upon the decaying figure of Sir Percival, just as he will gaze on Count Fosco at the morgue in Paris. Walter describes the individual portions of Fosco’s dead body: he writes of the “broad, firm, massive face…the wound…exactly over his heart…[and the] two deep cuts in the shape of a T…” (Collins 623). Walter examines the flesh of his enemy, writing that he “forced himself to see these things…for a few moments” (Collins 624). Walter admits no pleasure in seeing his enemies in a state of decomposition, but one can infer his relief that his troubles have ended. Both Sally Mann and Walter Hartright put themselves in a position of viewing decomposing bodies; Mann uses the experience to create art, while Walter allows it to bring him relief and (perhaps) give him a sense of justice served.
Here is a link to Sally Mann’s photography (WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES)
Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. London: Penguin, 1999.
“Making Art Out of Bodies: Sally Mann Reflects on Life and Photography. NPR. 12 May 2015. Website. “http://www.npr.org/2015/05/12/405937803/making-art-out-of- bodies-sally-mann-reflects-on-life-and-photography.”