Thanks to Maggie Galehouse for publishing this review in last Sunday’s Houston Chronicle:
‘Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs’
By Sally Mann.
Little, Brown and Company, 496 pp., $32.
Photographer Sally Mann is a Southern artist. Not because she was born in Lexington, Virginia, in a hospital converted from the home of Stonewall Jackson, but because she has spent her entire life in thrall to the ineffable “mist and hour and light” of Rockbridge County. Before she shot and developed her first roll of film (in high school), before she met her husband (in college), before she gave birth to the first of three children (in her late ‘20s), Mann had already found her soul-mate, looking out at the mountains.
“Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs” is Mann’s ninth book, prompted by an invitation from Harvard to deliver its prestigious Massey Lectures. After a long and successful artistic career, she uses the occasion to turn the lens back on herself, to explore her childhood memories and the “genetic threads” of her family history. When, at the very start, Mann inventories the variety of twine and tape used to truss the crumbling cardboard boxes that are her family archives, she’s conjuring up an image of Pandora’s box — and preparing us for the dark forces about to be unleashed. Can they supply any explanation for her lifelong preoccupation with family, death, and the southern landscape?
“Hold Still” is a sprawling drawl of a memoir, stretching narrative into imagery, personal memories into historical research, and creative reflection into critical theory. Deftly and courageously written, it is spacious enough to accommodate all of the photographer’s doubts (as an artist) as well as her several certainties (as a mother). We learn what it means to live an artist’s life – at home, a tripod always at the ready; on the road, a darkroom set up in the back of a Suburban. And what it means to live that life ethically. Mann is as engaged with the politics of artmaking as she is with its poetics.
As expected, Mann recounts the infamous firestorm that greeted her third book of photographs, “Immediate Family” (1992), which featured images of her three children, often naked, living and playing on their isolated, idyllic Virginia farm. From her point of view, these images offered a full, uncensored look at children’s lives. From her critics’ point of view, they were exploitative. Mann was accused of everything from being a bad mother to a bad artist. Now she tells her side of the story, which includes a stalker and an alternate theory of representation. That theory leaves me wondering: If, as Mann points out, these photographic images are “not my children at all; these are children in a photograph,” then why does she continue to call them “the family pictures”?
Mann loosely structures the book as a portrait gallery, featuring, among others: her thwarted mother, who had to turn down Yale medical school for lack of funds; her equally thwarted father, a country doctor with the soul of an artist; the in-laws, whose drug-dealing double life ends in murder-suicide; a slave-trading great-great grandfather; fellow Lexington artist Cy Twombly; and Gee-Gee (Virginia Carter), her childhood caregiver.
Gee-Gee, the African-American woman who worked for the family for nearly 50 years, is the emotional heart of Mann’s story: “I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.” Even so, Mann realizes, she never questioned the racialized terms of engagement. She tells a story about Gee-Gee’s specialty, fried chicken:
“Maybe it was the fresh meat or maybe it was the depth of the hot oil or the seasonings in which she dipped it, but her fried chicken was so sublime that as we ate it we failed to notice the oil-splatter burns that peppered her arms or the sweat stain that spread across her uniform . . .”
What does a photographer see that the rest of us don’t? Again and again, Mann searches the shadow side of beauty. Mann may not have noticed Gee-Gee’s scarred arms when she was a child, but that failure seems to fuel the relentless questions she asks later, about slavery, racism, and “the rivers of blood, of tears, and of sweat that Africans poured into the dark soil of their thankless new home.” Those sublime southern landscapes, she reminds us, depend as much upon death as beauty.
The book’s title is catchy, and it turns out to be more than marketing. When we “hold still” for the camera, holding our breath for the briefest second, aren’t we rehearsing death at the very moment that our image is captured for posterity? “Hold Still” is the latest of Mann’s memento mori, a mournful reminder of life passing – even for the artist. “[W]ill all the marks I have left on the world,” she asks, “someday be tied up in a box?”
Copyright © 2015 Ann Daly