Southern Discomfort: Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
I picked up Hold Still by Sally Mann because it was about photography and memoir, two of my obsessions, and NOT because it was by somebody called Sally Mann, of whom I had never heard. I learned she became notorious in the early 1990s for exhibiting some beautiful nude photographs of her own children that the art world got all up in her face about. That made her “controversial,” which is a very marketable commodity in this salacious social environment.
You might think her notoriety is what gave her the confidence and courage to write this book, but I don’t think so. This book is totally unique and what I would call soul driven out of Mann’s pasts and passions.
Simply described, it is photographs with paragraphs. Or essays. Or whole rambling chapters, like a hypergraphic family photo album. But wait! That’s not how the modern memoir is supposed to be structured. Mann didn’t get the memo: you’re supposed to pick a theme like losing a child to illness, coping with a physical handicap, surviving a trauma or an event like a hurricane or a war. Instead, Mann goes up in her attic and starts rummaging through all the detritus of generations who have gone before her. She grabs hold of one puzzle piece after another of the long-gone family members and starts researching. She researches their stories, fits them to their photographs, and pieces the puzzle of their lives together as best she can.
In her introduction, she lays out that organizing principle. Then she says, “I will confess that in the interest of narrative I secretly hoped I’d find a payload of southern gothic: deceit and scandal, alcoholism, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land, abandonments, blow jobs, suicides, hidden addictions, the tragically early death of a beautiful bride, racial complications, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of a prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder” (xiv).
She delivers on all of that and more. This makes for a compelling beginning because even though she says, “We all have them: those boxes in storage, detritus left to us by our forebears” (ix), my family certainly doesn’t. I have only my dad’s photographs; Mann has inherited from multiple ancestors stretching back into the dim and misty past. Researching and synthesizing that massive archive on the page is a project worthy of Hercules’ labors.
Murder and mayhem aplenty make for page-turning reading, but that’s not what got me through this 478 page tome: it was the feeling of looking at myself through a glass darkly. Mann and I are the same age, both photographers and writers, both rooted in land and family–both of us have that rare thing, a happy marriage of long-standing, a not inconsiderable point of comparison. Both of us are “Daddy’s girls” with fathers silent on key issues who were both themselves artists and photographers in addition to their day jobs.
We have so much in common that it kept me reading in a kind of wonderment, as well as astonishment at how the glass of place, her South vs my Pacific Northwest, refracts and reinterprets common themes.
Mann is from Lexington, Virginia. She lives on the family farm and is all about the South. She tries hard to shatter stereotypes and cliches about the South but only succeeds in reinforcing them. Is that because they are true? My preconception about the South is that it is largely still preoccupied with issues of race and has never gotten over its dark Civil War heritage. Racism, slavery, and the Civil War are all major themes Mann takes up in the context of having been raised more by Gee-Gee, her African-American nanny than by her own mother.
I also have Gothic images in my mental file labeled, “Reasons I Don’t Want to Visit the South,” and a photo essay Mann is commissioned to do for the High Museum in Atlanta called “Picturing the South” underscores every one of my prejudices with murky, barely decipherable images that I’m surprised anyone considers artistic. She shoots with old school, early 20th century cameras to get these unfortunate solarizing, vignetting, and light leak effects. She calls it “ghostly radiance” (215), among other admiring terms. I understand that this is a specific aesthetic– it’s just not one I share.
On the other hand, I love how she writes about photographing landscape; “landscape as character” is one of my favorite topics. “Working in the inexhaustible natural pageant before me, I came to wonder if the artist who commands the landscape might in fact hold the key to the secrets of the human heart: place, personal history, and metaphor” (210), she says, which I consider to be an excellent insight.
Then she delivers a photograph so dark it looks like it was taken through the scrim of a Girl Scout tent on a moonless night. Of this, she enthuses, “The landscape appears to soften before your eyes and becomes seductively vague, as if inadequately summoned by some shiftless creator casually neglectful of the details….the image often appears to have been breathed onto the negative, a moist refulgence within deepening shadows….I loved that effect. To whatever extent it is possible to photograph air, I was going to try to do it, and to whatever extent photographs can reveal the dark mysteries of a haunted landscape, I set out to make them” (213).
I can only say that Southerners must see something in their landscape, or in Mann’s photographs, that those of us photographing in the crisp air of the high Cascades just can’t see. Maybe it is genuinely a case of, “You had to be there.”
Mann works over time on the subject of race. She’s a child of the liberal 60s squirming like a worm on a hook trying to reconcile her Southern race heritage with her generational values. Her white guilt is painful to see in a series of African-American men that just makes me damned uneasy in spite of her long essay trying to figure out for herself just what the heck she’s doing. “When [black male models] walk into my funky-ass studio, miles from nowhere, they are guarded and suspicious; how could they not be? Who is this gray-haired old gumboil…and what kind of pictures does she want? Not some quasi-sexual-stud bullshit, they hope….The historically dishonest and slippery social ground upon which our brief friendships struggle for a foothold makes every emotion, every gesture, suspect” (284).
In fact, that historically dishonest social ground is way too slippery for me to feel that her rationales are convincing. It was one of several places in the book where I heard Mann talking but wondered what was really being said. I watched her run self-explanatory circles around her compulsion to photograph big black guys with the same fascination as I’d watch a self-immolating Buddhist monk: I can’t look away.
I’m sounding like I didn’t like the book, but, in fact, I loved it. I didn’t see eye to eye with her half the time, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate her insights, research, and unique point of view.
My favorite chapters were Sally Mann’s in-depth analysis and evaluation of her father’s life. He was a dedicated physician who also had an artistic temperament. His area of interest and expertise was the representation of death in art, which is an established field of study. He seems to have been very scholarly in his interest, but this struck his daughter as incomprehensible. However, as she dives deeper into his archive of photography and ephemera, and then starts comparing it to her own earliest efforts, she finds she is a chip off the old Thanatos-obsessed block.
In her twenties, Sally Mann photographed a chaste romantic fantasy series called “The Dream Sequence” that involves twin girls and the kiss of death. Our contemporary pre-teens, raised on a steady diet of conflicted Twilight saga vampires would feel right at home with these images.
But Mann doesn’t lose her inherited fascination with her father’s theme of death in art. In her later years, Mann takes a job with the New York Times to photograph at The Body Farm, the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research facility for studying the decomposition of human remains. This chapter relishes the gruesome observed detail, written and photographed. I think this extended essay is the penultimate expression of her father’s wish to roll around with the dead. Mann gets down into it and mines the experience for all it’s worth. Again, she seems thrilled with her mostly incomprehensible images and the chance to examine death, decomposition and the objective science of forensics in such wallowing completion.
Sally Mann takes up several topics in Hold Still that startled me by how close they are to questions on my own mind. For example, I am currently curating my father’s 5000+ slides from the 1950s-1970s. I’m sorting, scanning, and creating a legacy website. It is with great dismay as I look at his images that I realize I have taken 75% of his shots–the same rivers, mountains, flowers and birds, often from the same angle or vantage point. Sometimes his film image is the better of the two; sometimes my digital image wins; and way too often, the two are indistinguishable.
Of course, I thought this was a personally unique phenomenon, but Sally Mann starts going through her father’s collection and says, as I have, “I could have taken any of these pictures. In fact, I have taken these pictures, almost every one of them…. Recognizing them as my own pictures gave me a moment of woo-woo, hair-raising frisson followed by a vexatious pinch of resentment and resignation…. I began to see my artistic life… as the inevitable result of my silent father’s clamorous influence” (402). Mann then uses that insight as a launchpad into her full immersion baptism in death at The Body Farm.
I’ll admit my own insight into the similarities between my father’s photos and my own followed so quickly by Mann’s corroborating experience really slowed down my photography and made me ask, “What’s worth photographing?” Mann’s quicker answer was to jump 110% into her father’s death in art preoccupation and make it emphatically her own. I think I’ve already done that. I’ve stumbled to a halt, and I’m looking around stupidly for the next step of my/our journey.
I also appreciate Sally Mann’s articulation of the photographer’s spiritual experience at the moment of composition and creation of the image because I have often wondered if this was just my own weird experience. Mann says, “Certain moments in the creative process, moments when I am really seeing, are weirdly expansive, and I develop a hyperattuned visual awareness….Radiance coalesces about the landscape, rich in possibility, supercharged with something electric, insistent. Time slows down, becomes ecstatic” (212). That is exactly my experience.
But the feeling of ecstasy, of being supremely present at the right time and the right place doing what you were born to do–this is my experience as well as Mann’s, so it is not a stretch to say both our fathers experienced that same jumping-out-of-your-skin joy when they took, well, exactly the same photographs we took. Is it too much to guess that this time-stopping ecstasy is a universal drug of choice for photographers everywhere?
I got tired and suspicious at the reproduction quality of the murky photographs in this paperback book and finally went online to view a huge Google repository of Sally Mann’s photographs. As the photographs online bloomed on my retina display, I started to get why Mann is considered “one of America’s most renowned photographers.” A murky image on paper reveals radiance on the screen. A Google gallery is a way of gestalting an artist’s entire canon, and I see her work now for the variety of projects she has done and the various aesthetics she has engaged over her career, and I like her work, very much.
Mann, Sally. Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown, 2015.