May 2015

Sheri Caplan

nonfiction

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann

Upon being invited in 2008 to deliver the prestigious Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, three years later on any topic of her choosing, photographer Sally Mann did what I might do: she searched for an excuse to relieve herself of the obligation. Coming up empty handed, she then embarked on a search to examine her muse and discover the origins of the themes that epitomize her work: family, the American South, race, and mortality. Dusting off the cobwebs of attic storage boxes rife with the "detritus left to us by our forebears," she proceeded to deconstruct her family history in order to reconstruct her artistic evolution. Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs brilliantly encapsulates this reflection and creates a new paradigm in the memoir genre through its seamless integration of narrative and personal artifact, combined with riveting storytelling that transforms introspection into a unique work of art.

To be sure, Mann possesses "a payload of southern gothic" to draw upon from her family history and life replete with scandals, social climbers, and the occasional stalker, which lends drama and mystery to her story. She chronicles her life through narrative interlaced with images, including childhood snapshots of her taken by her family, her first contact sheet developed as a teen, and her professional work, along with disciplinary letters from school administrators and the like. Even a letter from her father that contains only ten words in its main text but amounts to eleven handwritten pages due to its extensive footnotes and bibliography makes an appearance as an exhibit. These documents not only lend authenticity and a sense of gravitas to the writing, they bind the reader to Mann on her exploration. Instead of being grouped together in image ghettoes in the middle or at the end of the book, they are incorporated into the text as Mann invites the reader to focus on them along with her.

This coalescence of image and prose eloquently attests to her "True Calling[s]" of writing and photography. She traces her discovery of those interests to her high school years spent at the Putney School in Vermont. The development of these talents has allowed her to challenge convention, an inclination with even deeper roots. Born the only girl and youngest of three siblings to an aloof mother and an artistically inclined father who practiced medicine and was fascinated with morbidity, she grew up "a near-feral child" in rural Virginia tended to by the family's cherished black housekeeper. Her rebellious streak followed her to boarding school and beyond. During winter break from her first year at Bennington College, she met her future husband, Larry Mann. They married six months later, much to the chagrin of his conservative Connecticut parents.

Eventually, the pair settled in her beloved Virginia countryside and later purchased her family's sprawling farm. This rural oasis provided the privacy and sanctuary that both fuels Mann's spirit and enabled her in the early 1990s to produce Immediate Family, her third book of photographs and the one that catapulted her to fame and notoriety for its controversial inclusion of nude photos of her children. These images were not of the saccharine type found in most family albums, but of a decidedly unsentimental nature. She revealed the messy business of childhood in both its placid and its distressful moments. Nudity and nosebleeds were on display. Not everyone applauded her accomplishment. Mann and her work became a point of contention in the moral climate then engulfing government funding of the arts, and her parenting was scrutinized. Though she acknowledges that the series had unintended consequences for her family life, she does offers not an apology but a rebuttal to those who questioned her decisions: Without understanding the environmental context, she posits that one cannot understand how she could make the choices that she did. The farm provided her the necessary privacy and a sense of timelessness within which to create while her children acted the willing models. She makes the salient point that a distinction can exist between image and reality. The inclusion of two photos taken within split seconds drives that argument home: the first shows her children posing with defiant postures, the next portrays them with dreamy innocence.

Though this portion of her memoir seems most cathartic for Mann, she also delves into her other significant photographic subjects and the origins of her interests. She muses on her possible predisposition to an artistic bent by examining her lineage. To summarize her observations would deprive readers of the pleasure of delighting in her lyrical writing. Her dry humor and candor deprive it of conceit. She wields her bountiful vocabulary with precision, and enjoys the luxury of delivering one of the most exquisite run-on sentences that ever escaped the potentially sterilizing pen of a copyeditor:

Many pictures came to me in that lucky rush of exultation, the ones for which I had time to shoot only one, one sheet of film, those where I sank to my knees after shakily replacing the dark slide, eyes shut tight in thanksgiving and fear, fear that I'd screw it up in the developer, fear that the fraction of a second I saw was not the one on film, and in exhaustion, too, from the breath-held moment, a tenth of a second with the expansive, vertiginous properties of Nabokovian timelessness, while before me the brilliant angel no longer radiant with the sun snatches up the towel and heads to the beach, the tomatoes are imperfectly carved up for supper, and my heart, my pounding heart, sends from my core the bright strength for me to rise.

Whew. Hold still? You betcha.

Vanity presses may rub their hands with glee, expecting a forthcoming run on personal histories bursting with photos and ephemera that will bump up attendant profit margins. Beware: What may provide fodder for family lore does not necessarily translate into greater good for the reading public. In less talented hands, this sort of protracted self-reflection may actually warrant fewer pages rather than more.

Mann succeeds in her effort to come to terms with both her inherited and self-created legacies. Her images and words resonate through her artistry and honesty as she questions the nature of memory. Though our lives may be fleeting, she points out that we each leave our mark, however slight, on the world. Hold Still does just that. It is the reason I read.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316247764
496 pages