Photographer Sally Mann has built her career capturing the intimate details of the bodies, landscapes and objects that surround her. Her subjects have included her young children depicted as wild things (“Immediate Family”), landscapes of her beloved Virginia (“Deep South”) and vivid, raw images of her own body and that of her husband’s (“Proud Flesh”). Her excellent memoir, “Hold Still,” a careful, detailed literary and visual portrait of the photographer’s early influences and experiences, begins with Mann opening what she calls “ancestral boxes” filled with old photographs. She notes that rummaging through old photos, deciding which to keep and which to trash, is a delicate and emotional enterprise fraught with the misguided belief that visual representations of ourselves offer clues to who we are.
If we throw out these images, what will be lost? In Mann’s mind, we lose only revisionist history, not “the truth.” Rather than preserve our past, “photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.” Mann’s acknowledgment of this tension in her work is one of the many satisfying elements of this memoir.
Mann is not just a visual artist but, it turns out, an earnest and energetic storyteller. In prose that is as lyrical and surprising as her photographs, she offers a spirited account of her early formative experiences of horseback riding and rebellion in the Southern landscapes that deeply informed her childhood. In one particularly beautiful scene, Mann recalls her early rapture in a dark room when she realizes that “something mediocre is better than nothing”: a wonderfully generous ethos for any creative artist to adopt, regardless of medium.
The book — full of letters and Mann’s well-known photographs as well as candid shots taken by others — is divided into sections that reflect the major relationships of her life: her mother, her father, her husband and Gee-Gee, the African American nanny she insists she loved like a mother. This direct and unapologetic engagement with race makes up one of the most powerful and interesting — and perhaps problematic — parts of the book and reflects the complicated and difficult history of the place that defines her. She writes, “I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.”
She credits Rockridge County, Va., as the crucible for her art, both as a child and then as a young mother, when she and her husband, Larry, and their young children sought “a life of simplicity, pluck, seclusion, and soul-satisfying, ecological, sweat-of-the-brow, we’ll-vote-with-our-lives self-sufficiency.” Mann’s deep connection to a specific place is moving and creates a powerful through-line in the book: “Without the farm, many of the other important things in my life — my marriage to Larry, the family photographs, the southern landscapes — might never have happened.”
The photographs, both merciless and compassionate, work wonderfully with Mann’s prose. In the book’s final and most outstanding section, Mann addresses her lifelong preoccupation with mortality and the “death-narrative,” an interest that leads to a series of photographs of decomposing bodies at the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility. It’s difficult to look at these photos and impossible to look away. They are at once too prurient and provocative, but also beautiful in their truth. The viewer senses awe and wonder behind the lens, the artist’s refreshing unwillingness to sanitize experience or people, their lives or their deaths.
The same might be said for all of Mann’s work and for her insistence that “I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me,” she writes, “allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.” I was grateful for her words.
This engagement with image and memory and how they work together to tell us who we are, who we are not and who we might have been or might still be is the great gift of Mann’s memoir. Mann’s prose — luminous, chatty and smart — together with photographs that arrest and provoke — invites readers to hold the camera still with her, and in that space, to imagine whole narratives that accompany these slices in time, no matter how false or incomplete.
Emily Rapp Black is the author, most recently, of “The Still Point of the Turning World.”
A Memoir With Photographs
Little, Brown: 482 pp., $32