Reading Sally Mann’s new memoir, Hold Still*, was a real treat for me. I came to the book with no expectations at all–here I’ll betray my cultural ignorance by telling you that I really didn’t know who Sally Mann was–and was delighted to find a fascinating, non-linear portrait of an artist, a place, and a family.
Sally Mann is, I learned, most famous for a project that included a series of portraits of her children, entitled Immediate Family. It was the subject of debate during the early- to mid-90s culture wars, and Ms. Mann is quite candid about the anguish and self-doubt the controversy caused her, especially as a parent, but stands by her work. Later in the book, she writes, “Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art” (283).
The Immediate Family project is just one aspect of Ms. Mann’s career that the memoir covers. She discusses her later and current projects, her relationship with friend and mentor Cy Twombly, and some of her favorite subjects, as well as how she became a photographer. I should say here that I know absolutely nothing about the practice or aesthetics of photography, and I found her descriptions of the complicated process of getting the right image (illustrated with photographs that were judged lacking) engrossing. This is a long book, but since it’s liberally peppered with pictures (even the rough images in the galley I read are interesting viewing, and some are downright gorgeous), it moves quickly, and I found myself flying through chapters, unable to put the book down.
Ms. Mann is an excellent writer, a keen observer (as one might expect) of others and herself. She’s hard on the girl she was, judging herself harshly for lapses in judgement and reckless, less than empathetic behavior, but it’s clear that she was an intelligent, interested person from the very beginning.
Here’s a passage I found illuminating, in the context of a discussion of Ms. Mann’s recent work documenting, or making art, that shows her beloved husband’s muscular dystrophy:
To be able to take my pictures I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about. And I must do so with both warm ardor and cool appraisal, with passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart there must be a splinter of ice. […] And it is because of the work, and the love, that these pictures I took don’t disturb Larry. Like our kids, he believes in the work we do and in confronting the truth and challenging convention. We’ve all agreed for years now that a little discomfort is a small price to pay for that. (144-45)
The setting for most of Sally Mann’s work is the south, and in particular her family home, on sprawling, heat- and humidity-drenched land in Rockbridge County, Virginia. The farm and the land, which is also where she grew up, are almost characters in and of themselves, so lovingly does she depict it in words and pictures.
Ms. Mann loves the south and its characters, but she doesn’t shy away from its violent, tragic history of slavery of racism, and her own family’s participation in institutionalized and unthinking racism, both historically and during her own childhood. She was effectively raised by the family housekeeper, whom she called Gee-Gee, clearly with great reciprocity of affection. A formidable woman, and a widow, Virginia worked for the Manns six days a week, and managed to send all six of her own children to excellent schools and colleges. How did she do it, asks Ms. Mann.
By working twelve hours a day and by taking in linens to iron at night, linens stuffed into white sacks crowding her front door when my father took her home after all day on her feet at our house. What did he think when he saw those bags? What were any of us thinking? Why did we never ask the questions? That’s the mystery of it—our blindness and our silence. (259)
Part of what makes this memoir so successful (this coming from someone who generally reads them very selectively) is Ms. Mann’s wide view. She’s exploring her own origins, of course, but reaches far back into the family archives (both her own and her husband’s) to uncover a panoply of information that would keep a writer of Southern gothic novels occupied for years. There’s murder, mayhem, adultery, drugs, great wealth, great sorrow, and dreams set aside for practical realities, and Ms. Mann looks at it all, making connections, asking questions. To learn about her is to be immersed in her family and its past.
I came away with from Hold Still with new insights about art and family and big questions, too. I’m very glad I had the opportunity to fall into this book. Highly recommended reading.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.