Photographer Sally Mann is fascinated by bodies. In the early 1990s, she became famous — or notorious — for her book Immediate Family, which featured photographs of her young children naked. Critics claimed Mann's work eroticized the children, but Mann says the photos were misinterpreted.
"I was surprised by the vehemence, I guess, of the letters and the dead certainty that so many people had that they understood ... my motivations and feelings and who my children were," Mann tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "People feel like they understand the children just by virtue of looking at the pictures but ... those aren't my children. Those are photographs of my children. They're just a tiny, tiny moment slivered out of time, a 30th of a second."
After those photos, Mann moved on to what she describes in her new book, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, as "deeply personal explorations of the landscape of the American South, the nature of mortality (and the mortality of nature), intimate depictions of my husband and the indelible marks that slavery left on the world surrounding me."
Mann's work has included a series of photos of decomposing bodies in a University of Tennessee forensic anthropology research facility and photos of her husband, whose muscles are withering from muscular dystrophy.
On photographing her children naked
It's not that I wanted to do a series of pictures of my children nude, it's just that they were always nude in the summers when I did most of my shooting. We had a cabin on the river on our farm and there's not another breathing soul for probably 5 miles in all directions and they just never seemed to wear clothes. Why should they? They were in the river almost all day and deep into the night, so the fact that in many cases the children were nude ... that's just how the children were. ... I didn't take pictures of them once they reached the age of puberty, certainly. But considerably before then, I think, I quit taking pictures of them.
On what she thinks the photos of her children capture
One of the interesting things is to go back and look at the contact sheets and you look at picture after picture after picture of the same scene. And you'll see in one picture, [the children] look mean; and in another one, they're giggling; and in another, one of them is punching the other and they're laughing. They're just doing regular kid things. You just always have to remember that picture ... that's a 30th of a second and to either side of that picture are half a dozen other images that are completely different and warm and friendly and sweet.
On photographing the University of Tennessee's "Body Farm"
The "Body Farm," as it's colloquially known, is designed to help graduate students measure decomposition in human bodies. They use it primarily forensically, I think, so that if law enforcement runs across a body that's, say, been locked up in a trunk for two weeks, they can gauge the size of the maggots or the development of the blowflies and know exactly or close to exactly when that body was put in that trunk given temperature conditions and all that kind of stuff. ...
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, in the same way that the graduate students were working with them. So that was one of the shocking things. ... The smell is just unbelievable but 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.
On her fascination with death
I have had a fascination with death that I think might be considered genetic. ... My father had the same affliction, I guess. The origin of his was the sudden death of his father — this is just a theory, we never talked about it. ... I think it changed the course of his life. He became fascinated with death. He then became a medical doctor and obviously fought death tooth and nail for his patients. But I was surrounded in the household with the iconography of death. He was a very cultured man and he was fascinated with the way death has been portrayed through the ages in all forms, from cave paintings to literature to everything. ... I picked it up by osmosis.
On photography's effect on memory
Using photographs as an instrument of memory is probably a mistake because I think that photographs actually sort of impoverish your memory in certain ways, sort of take away all the other senses — the sense of smell and taste and texture, that kind of stuff.
On photographing her husband's body after his muscular dystrophy diagnosis
I don't think that he in any way in those pictures loses his dignity ... and I don't think anyone would think of him as being weak. ... It was wonderful. It was some of the happiest times I can remember being behind a camera. It's usually so fraught when you're taking a picture. I work with an 8-by-10 camera and there's a hood that I put over my head and it's tricky and complicated, but this was just such a lovely moment in our marriage. We're headed into our 45th year of marriage next month. ... It was just such a quiet, peaceful moment for us and it's not that we didn't know he had muscular dystrophy, but it was really one of the first times we actually sat down and looked at what it had done to his body and making art out of it somehow felt like the right thing to do.
You can see more of Mann's work here. Note that some of her photographs are graphic and/or include nudity.
The possibility of humans colonizing outer space may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but British astronomer Chris Impey says that, if only the U.S. hadn't slashed the budget of its space program four years ago, the sci-fi fantasy would be well on its way to a modern-day reality.
"I think we might actually be living on the moon and Mars," Impey tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Maybe not many of us, but we might have our first bases there. We'd have robust commercial space activity or people routinely in orbit. America wouldn't have had a hiatus of four years and counting when we couldn't get astronauts into space. It would be probably quite different."
Despite the cuts to NASA, Impey says the possibility of humans living in space is very real. And if — or when — it happens, the space settlers will face conditions that may cause them to become an entirely new species.
"They'll evolve physiologically quite quickly, because if the gravity is less — as it would be on Mars or the moon — then they will change," Impey says. "Their physical bodies will change even while they're alive. And then if they have children and grandchildren — then they'll change even more."
Impey is a faculty member at the University of Arizona and the author of Beyond: Our Future in Space. In his previous book, Humble Before the Void, Impey recounted his journey to Northern India to teach a program designed to introduce science into the Tibetan Buddhist monastic tradition.
On what's left of the NASA space program
It's actually still pretty good. I think the perception of NASA — [that] we're in a bad space in our activities — is a little exaggerated. NASA's budget isn't growing, but it's also not declining. So, they're investing in new technologies; we're going to get a new heavy launch capability in a couple of years. The space station is active and doing scientific experiments. We're launching satellites; there's a heavy entourage of spacecraft going through the solar system and exploring there. It's not quite as bad as some people make out.
On China's involvement in the space race
They've grown their space activity at the rate of their economy, which has been 10 percent a year for a decade and maybe slimming down a bit. But that's compared to our flat-line budget for NASA. So they've got a doubling of their activity in less than a decade. They're looking to build their own space station, and it might be up there at a time when the International Space Station is de-orbited and burned up in the atmosphere. They're looking to go to the moon; they're looking to have a Mars rover, and they're actually — unlike the one of the stereotypes that they're just sort of copying our technology — they're actually innovating. They have very young engineers in their space program — very keen, very well trained, very ambitious.
On the concern that China will claim the moon
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 supposedly prohibits any country or government from claiming ownership of the moon or an asteroid or Mars. It leaves a loophole for individuals or corporations because it just didn't anticipate that. So, in principle, they can't really do that. Even where Apollo and the astronauts landed is not really a U.S. preserve, which has led to some interesting issues as commercial entities try and go back to the moon and perhaps send their rovers trampling across the astronauts' footsteps and the lunar rover tracks. So the Chinese can't really claim ownership of it. But, the resources? They can harvest the resources of the moon or mars and, really, there's no rule against that.
On sex in space
The astronauts — NASA and the Russians — continually deny the heavy rumor mill that says it's already happened. The astronauts are well trained and not supposed to do that, but, yes, when the public is up there, they're going to do what they normally do on the earth. ...
Your body is not functioning normally when all your capillaries and your muscles are designed to deal with the tug of gravity and you won't have that. But there'd also be ways in which Newton's third law — of action and reaction — interfere with the normal methods of sex that you might use on Earth. I'd just assume it's going to be an adventure, and people will be creative and they'll find new ways to enjoy themselves.
On creating a space elevator
The space elevator is of course a cool idea out of science fiction, and Arthur C. Clarke most famously asked when we would have our space elevators. And he said, "Fifty years after people stop laughing." And I think people are about to stop laughing. ...
Just imagine you're holding a cable or a rope — a finite length piece of rope — and you're just spinning. You're just spinning it around, and it will go straight out away from you by the centrifugal force. Well, the moon and the Earth are spinning too, so if you have a cable going into the air sufficiently high, then it will be suspended by the force caused by the spinning object that you're standing on. And it will just appear to go straight up into the air — right out into space — and hover there.
On the Dalai Lama's openness to science
The Dalai Lama, he said, famously ... that if modern science is found to disagree with a basic tenet of Buddhism, then Buddhism will change. And it's really hard to imagine those words coming out of the mouths of some religious leaders. That's an extraordinary openness to the inquiry that's at the heart of science.
On life in other universes
I like the idea that we're not it. I like the idea that the universe — the boundless possibility of 20 billion habitable worlds — has led to things that we can barely imagine. I think it's fun because it means your science is not self-contained and finite; it means that you have to really go way out of the box, even to imagine what astrobiology elsewhere might be like.