BY CATHERINE HOLMES
Special to The Post and Courier
HOLD STILL: A Memoir with Photographs. By Sally Mann. Little Brown. 482 pages. $32.
Photographer Sally Mann writes that she remembers whispering to her children “hold still hold still hold still” as she looked through the ground glass of her camera’s viewfinder. How fitting that “Hold Still,” the mother’s whispered plea, is now the title of Mann’s new memoir — a gorgeous grab-bag of a book. What Mann said in the introduction to her 1992 collection, “Immediate Family,” has even more resonance now: “There’s the paradox: we see the beauty and we see the dark side of things ... The Japanese have a word for this dual perception: mono no aware. It means something like ‘beauty tinged with sadness.’ How is it that we must hold what we love tight to us, against our very bones, knowing we must also when the time comes, let it go?”
Mann isn’t ready to let everything go yet. “Hold Still” opens in the attic at her family’s farm, where she faces the physical leftovers of her personal and ancestral past. Many of these artifacts show up in the pages of her book: the yellowed photographs, old report cards, journals, letters, and postcards that generations of her family have archived.
Rummaging in the past, Mann confesses a secret wish for “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 the prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder.” And what did she find? Mann tantalizes by promising that she found “all of it and more.” How’s that for a hook?
“Hold Still” is a deeply personal book that complements the narratives in Mann’s photographs. Like her images, Mann’s words spin a tender, complicated story. An image communicates in a way that’s nonverbal: It’s impossible to create the exact equivalent of a visual statement in words. Yet Mann structures her memoir to foreground links between the people and places of her real life and the art they inspired. Strangely — or not — it’s the art she remembers more than its real antecedents. Once she takes a photograph, it replaces the real event in her mind.
Each of Mann’s four chapters (Part 1. Family Ties: The Importance of Place; Part 2. My Mother: Memory of a Memory Past; Part 3.Gee Gee: The Matter of Race; Part 4. My Father: Against the Current of Desire) is a roomy amalgam of art and life. As she foresaw in 1992, the beautiful and the sad continue to co-exist in Mann’s work. The first chapter takes us into the environs around Lexington, Virginia, where she has lived for most of her 64 years.
Of her homeplace, Mann writes, “I have loved Rockbridge County, Virginia surely since my birth-bleary eyes caught sight of it.” In her photographs, it is a sun-drenched, haunted, and lyrical place — heavily tinged with what Mann calls “dosages of romance.” Mann grew up there as a “feral child,” having doggie and horsey adventures that took her far from home, where, she says, she wasn’t missed in the least.
Although she felt like a “cracker” when she went away to board at the Putney School in Vermont, her family environment was in fact highly cultivated. Her mother, a Mayflower descendent from Boston, ran the Washington and Lee Bookstore for 16 years before opening one of her own; and her father, an oddball, atheistic doctor who came from a wealthy Dallas family, practiced medicine and was a not very closeted artist and collector.
Mann’s hymn to her native land leads her to contemplate the famous art she made there, the beautiful and controversial pictures of her children at the family’s remote farm. Readers of Mann’s memoir will likely be aware that she suffered a firestorm of criticism over these early photographs and endured charges that she was a terrible mother whose children were “art-abused.” This is one interlude in a long, art-filled life; Mann reprises the arguments and settles some scores, but she doesn’t unduly linger over any of it. The joy of reading what she has to say about the family pictures is to experience her own happy recollection of collaborating with her children to make them. Would she do it all over again? “Yes. Yes, and yes.”
Again and again, Mann’s unflinching dedication to the truth begins with personal obsessions and expands into artistic ones. Writing about her artistic engagement with the South, she starts close to home, with her love for Virginia Carter, the black woman who raised her. Belatedly recognizing what she didn’t see as a child — the many indignities that “Gee Gee” suffered in the Jim Crow South — Mann sets out to confront her ruined legacy. “I weep for the great heart of the South, the flawed human heart,” she writes.
To take the photographs collected in “Deep South” and “Motherland,” she sets off alone, or sometimes with her dog Lucy, in the family’s Suburban to explore the South and to “nail down just what it is that makes it so alluring and so repellent, like fruit on the verge of decay.” These excursions take her to decrepit plantations, to Civil War battlefields, to the place where Emmett Till was murdered. The images she made, wet collodion prints that reflect a damaged history, are deliberately imperfect. Mann introduces over-exposures, weird stains, solarization, and scratches to create her timeless expressions of beauty and sadness.
Mann has often said in interviews that she wanted to be a writer and switched to photography because it was easier. Anyone who understands the painstaking process of taking pictures with a large format camera will know that ease has nothing to do with it. Mann’s photographs are highly crafted, deliberately artificial, staged works of art. She turns the same tenacity and immersive attention to writing. “Hold Still” is idiosyncratic and dreamy, a thrill to read.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.