Hold Still by Sally Mann , review Bruce Jacobs
In gallery shows, museum exhibitions, newspaper interviews, magazine features, film documentaries and photography books (Immediate Family; Deep South), artist Sally Mann hasn't shied from revealing pieces of her personal life and aesthetic motivation. In her illustrated memoir, Hold Still, she goes further toward exposing the woman behind the photographs and her family roots. With a remarkably candid voice--sometimes sassy, sometimes pensive--she pulls us along on a journey into her past, precipitated by a careful dig into cartons of old family correspondence, snapshots, diaries and bric-a-brac long stored untouched in her farmhouse in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
From her days as an "impertinent scalawag"--who in 1967 went off to prep school in Putney, Vt., as a self-described "dumb peckerwood cracker, with a trunkful of very uncool reversible wrap-around skirts my mother had sewn herself"--to a renowned artist delivering the 2011 Massey Lecture Series at Harvard, Mann recalls her life and her background. She writes of her father's self-made wealthy Dallas family, her mother's Boston Brahmin origins with an adulterous manipulating mother, and her husband Larry's uptight Connecticut family, which abruptly died off with his parents' shadowy murder-suicide. It is a past that subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) finds its way into the many old family snapshots and carefully crafted Mann photos aptly displayed throughout the memoir. But it is her immediate family that is the focus of much of her work--including the controversial early photos of her children (often naked) growing up on the farm and the disturbing later pictures of Larry's body (also naked) wasting away from late-onset muscular dystrophy.
In between these family studies, Mann's work also tackled her unambiguous but conflicted attachment to the land (particularly of the South) and to death. Once she packed up her GMC Suburban and drove alone to photograph the rural landscapes of Mississippi carrying combustible, noxious cylinders of ether for her preferred wet-plate colloidal photography ("praying that my rolling darkroom cum bomb didn't get rear-ended by some meth-head who'd unknowingly met his chemical match"). Another time, with special access to a restricted University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility popularly called the "Body Farm," Mann spent several days alone photographing cadavers decomposing in open fields because "ultimate beauty requires that edge of sweet decay, just as our casually possessed lives are made more precious by a whiff of the abyss."
With an almost nonchalant narrative flow, Hold Still is Sally Mann's take not just on her life, but also on the underlying complexities of love, family, home and art. It abounds with the drama of newly uncovered family history, meditations on death, adoration of her husband and children and conversations with her artist neighbor Cy Twombly. Mann writes of her life the way she photographs others: "The camera was always set up off to the side and when something interesting happened, I would ask for everyone to hold still."
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.