Sally Mann’s Hold Still is a photographer’s memoir; although she has kept a journal since she was a girl, her love of imagery is deeply rooted, and it’s hard to imagine her memoir taking any other form.
Currently represented by the Gagosian Gallery, her CV is impressive and extensive, but even those who have never heard her name could find Hold Still an engaging work.
One of the reasons the work has such wide appeal is the author’s preoccupation with seeking a basic understanding — from whence things come and to whence they go — her circular musing upon the human condition.
Perhaps only other photographers will be interested in the technical aspect of the work. For instance, a discussion of an old rosewood 5 x 7 camera that her dad used to use, with its uncoated lens, which is susceptible to flare, and which barely covered her 8 x 10 inch film. The shutter, she observes, is sluggish and unpredictable, so she must always set a shorter time than the light meter suggests, and the recommended exposure time must be adjusted to accommodate the vagaries of the system.
This kind of detail might truly be appreciated by a small percentage of readers, but it is shared only occasionally and in accessible and everyday language. Ultimately it is her father himself, rather than the camera of his which she has used for years, whose presence lays a much broader claim to the memoir.
This man is described in one instance as her “no-gray-ever, all black or white, absolutely moral, never-an-inch-of-wiggle-room-for-equivocations-or-excuses, King of Perfect Rectitude and Repercussions, father” (when she is afraid that he will learn of her transgressions on the wrong side of the law). But he is also described in detail in terms of the relationships that he had with a variety of dogs in the family.
There is a great deal of family history shared in this volume, in prose and in pictures. Some of this history is entertaining, some is shocking. Much of it emphasizes the distinctly southern flavour of the work. (See “Family Pictures”, for example.)
Even if this is not a quality which can be readily surmised (particularly by someone who has never lived in the southern U.S.), it has a recognizable quality to it.
“It’s not that we southerners are exactly in love with death, but there is no question that, given our history, we’re on a first name basis with it. And such familiarity often lends southern art a tinge of sorrow, of finitude and mourning. Think of the blues, for example, or early jazz; think of Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, and others; think of the titanic trial of Rauschenberg, Johns, and Twombly in the visual arts.”
When Sally Mann considers being southern, she is referring as much to the people who inhabit the place as to the landscape itself. She tells stories about the apocryphal hospitality of southerners, both as observed and experienced.
“Total strangers. The kindness of total strangers: the sweet gestures of dumb trust and welcome, the common and miraculous somehow made one. It makes me weep. I weep for the great heart of the South, the flawed human heart.”
But the landscape itself is not only present in her artistic work (see “Southern Landscapes”, for instance) but in the philosophy underlying her approach to production.
“Do these fields, upon which unspeakable carnage occurred, where unknowable numbers of bodies are buried, bear witness in some way? And if they do, with what voice do they speak? Is there a numinous presence of death in these now placid battlefields, these places of stilled time?”
Sally Mann poses the kind of questions which haunt many poets and philosophers, embracing the land as witness, including Canadian writers Candace Savage and Sharon Butala, who have written powerfully about the landscape of memory. (I am reminded, too, of the haunting but beautiful image on the cover of M.G. Vassanji’s recent memoir, And Home Was Kariakoo.)
“And the story depicted in the irregular weave is of a place extravagant in its beauty, reckless in its fecundity, terrible in its indifference, and dark with memories.”
Now in her sixties, she has had many opportunities to reflect on the role and power and limitations of photography. Those who appreciate, let alone practice, the art form, will find her ideas of interest. Perhaps “photographs actually rob all of us of our memory”. Or, maybe: “Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time.”
It’s possible that discussing the meaning of photography is less effective than simply allowing it to speak for itself. Readers of Hold Still have plenty of opportunities to explore this possibility, whether by observing casual family photographs or carefully constructed artworks (this volume presents an abundance of both). At this point in her career, she is poised to compare and contrast different aspects of her life as an artist.
“In general, I am past taking pictures for the sake of seeing how things look in a photograph, although sometimes, for fun, I still do that. But these days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept. This work with black men, though inchoate and not yet even printed, seems to be a little of both.”
And although she is at the stage where she understands herself to be a photographer first and a writer second, she does place an importance upon words. She also identifies specific words and concepts from other languages which have profoundly impacted her work and her life.
Take, for example, the Welsh word hiraeth, meaning ‘distance pain’, which is a “yearning for the lost places of our past” and “not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love” but, instead, a “word about the pain of loving a place”.
Or, consider, the Japanese phrase mono no aware, translated as “beauty tinged with sadness”. Mann writes: “For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.”
In most cases, it seems as though she has come across the word after she had experienced the desire to express the concept. Her life’s work embodies those ideas, so it’s clearly something which existed within even before she discovered the language which adequately represents it.
That spark of recognition is likely to await many of Hold Still‘s readers. The book sprawls across a wide variety of subjects and it’s unlikely that readers will be able to predict the intersection of fascination with content, for the memoir has an unconventional structure.
Although anecdotes rooted in Sally Mann’s childhood appear early in the book, photos snapped of her during childhood also appear near the end, in the context of a discussion about her father’s lifelong relationship with art, even though the bulk of the book’s family history settles somewhere near the middle of the book.
It would seem as though the manuscript of Hold Still is a written response to an imagined gallery showing of Sally Mann’s works of a lifetime.
One can imagine her laying prints across the floor, arranging and shuffling images, then assembling a series of essays reflecting these photographs’ content.
The reader who craves an orderly information sharing, more common in traditional written memoirs, will appreciate the outline of the young Sally Mann’s academic progress (and hiccups) and accompanying photographs which appears in the early chapters. But later, this reader who longs for structure may be frustrated to find that her childhood artwork is later included in a chapter which considers her father’s death (or, furthermore, that the letters he wrote to her in childhood are included in the appendices) .
Time slips and slides in Hold Still. Whereas a photo can arrest an image, the memories which accompany such an image are multi-faceted and, often, messy. Even so, by the time readers turn the final pages, one has a clear sense of Sally Mann’s work and way of being with the world.