Sally Mann: Hold Still

Sally Mann
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015
496 pages, hardcover: $27.99 CDN

In Hold Still, Sally Mann discloses that the month she was conceived, her father—a doctor but also an art collector and connoisseur—wrote of his hope for someone in the next generation to be artistic. With characteristic wryness, Mann questions whether he thought she fit the bill, based on his labelling of a file of her childhood drawings as “Sally’s ‘Art.’” Nonetheless, he sent her to boarding school with a Leica camera, and the rest is history.

Mann became a household name (albeit one that has often been half-remembered and half-botched) with Aperture’s 1992 release of the monograph, Immediate Family, whose first printing sold out in three months. It features portraits of Mann’s children doing childlike things, and they just so happen to be nude in about a quarter of the images. Living on a 425-acre farm in Lexington, Virginia, the Mann family enjoyed a rare degree of privacy, which became compromised by the fallout of this controversy. These legitimately artistic photographs were interpreted by some people as perverted, even attracting a stalker. One art critic dismissed her work with the loaded term ‘Degenerate,’ which is linked closely with the Nazis’ disdain for modern art.

I’m not entirely convinced by Mann’s stance that an artist’s morality has no place in the assessment of work. The reason is that her multiple arguments of defence seem to implicate her by underscoring the very need to defend herself. She distinguishes between nudity and sexuality; lists the maternal acts that qualify her as a good mother; and demonstrates the agency of her children. (For example, they were invited to veto images in Immediate Family.) Given what she’s endured, though, the degree of coverage of her side of the story is understandable. It does not overpower Hold Still, even though it has been dominating media coverage of the book. (Admittedly, I am perpetuating this approach).

Mann provides autobiographical context for the controversy—from her childhood spent largely without clothing in a “near-feral” state, to her first exploration of nude photography (of classmates in the woods) that almost got her kicked out of boarding school. It was there that she transitioned from an aimless teen to a young adult with ambition, after realizing her charm was no longer enough to attract men. She married Larry Mann when she was 18, prompting his disgraced upper class parents to cut him out their will in secret. She was consumed by child-rearing, and it wasn’t until their third child was born that she embraced them as subject matter. She began to realize that photography wasn’t something to be fit around family; rather, it was easily integrated with it. Genre scenes of activities like swimming and eating became her staple.

Mann insists that she is “a regular person making ordinary art,” yet the CV on her website is a whopping 44 pages. Her memoir opens with her sorting through boxes of personal papers in preparation for the delivery of the Massey lectures at Harvard, which is hardly a run-of-the-mill opportunity. To her credit, she exploits the ordinary in this situation by allowing the reader to witness her anxiety. She is admirably transparent throughout Hold Still. For example, the reader is privy to her working process. She includes her first contact sheet; reveals technical glitches like vinegar syndrome that cracked her early negatives; shows multiple shots of the same scene while explaining what she tried to correct in each version; and contrasts a spontaneous photograph to a planned version of the same scene. Evaluations of her work like ‘loser’ and “little honey of a photo” reveal the difficulties and rewards of being an artist.

After photographing her children for ten years, Mann continued to push herself. She still prints all her own work, and she has tackled difficult subject matter: her husband’s muscular dystrophy; decomposing human bodies in The Body Farm, a forensics research facility in Tennessee; and black male bodies as an exploration of complex race relations in the South. The latter theme is also explored in writing, by reminiscing about her childhood African-American caretaker, Gee-Gee.

In her photographs, Mann has laid bare her family but, in her writing, she holds them fairly close. She explores painful memories about deceased family members, such as the murder-suicide of her in-laws, prompted presumably by the pressure to keep up with the Joneses, and her father’s ingestion of pills to speed up his otherwise natural death. Very little is said about conflicts with the living, however. Minimal mention is made of her brothers, possibly because there was a dispute over the family farm on which she lived. Maybe I’m a sucker for romance, but I found myself wanting to know more about her relationship with Larry. For instance, what drew them together besides the burliness she witnessed when her then-boyfriend brought him to the farm to move a huge rock? She does identify the genesis of their strong bond as a year-long trip as newlyweds to Europe on a tight budget, but this one-page description of living on love and art is a mere segue to a 14-page entry on her father’s European sojourn.

The usual suspects from archives are plumbed, like letters and diary entries. In addition, there are unexpected and delightful inclusions, such as accounting book excerpts and horse-riding ribbons. Mann demonstrates the power of photographs in constructing a story, continuing captions from one to the next so that they form a mini-narrative of their own instead of being isolated like usual.

On more than one occasion, Mann highlights that the act of writing her memoir makes her vulnerable. Even so, reading it doesn’t feel intrusive because she articulates her enjoyment of writing. Her style is grounded yet eloquent, evidence of her Masters in creative writing. It’s no wonder she was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Awards.