Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs
By Sally Mann
If you are—as I am—a photographer whose work focuses on your own children, it is more or less impossible to escape the shadow of Sally Mann. Mann was not the first artist to turn her lens on her family, but she was unquestionably one of the best. She is to the family genre what Ansel Adams was to black-and-white landscapes: the progenitor (or at least the catalyst) of a whole family of photographic tropes, an inspiration to generations of following artists, imitated to the point of cliché but seldom equaled, let alone surpassed.
It’s not exactly accurate to say I’m a fan of Sally Mann’s work. Rather let’s say that nearly everything I’ve done photographically is somehow informed by, inspired by, measured against her work. Her family work, of course, but her landscapes as well, her obsession with rootedness, with legacy, with personal history, with connection, with decay. If there’s ever been any single photographer in whose work I most saw my own ideas and emotions reflected, it’s her. (I can feel a slight sneer from an imaginary reviewer at this revelation. Of course some Dad With A Camera, some guy with his portfolio of longing-filled images of beautiful, serious-eyed children, of course he would cite Sally Mann as his biggest influence. Is it a cliché? Perhaps. It doesn’t make it any less true.)
There was never any question that I would read her memoir.
What does one look for when reading the story of one’s hero, told in her own words? (Is that the right word for what she is to me? My hero?) Affirmation, perhaps? Some sign of convergent evolution, some hint that I’m on the right track? Or maybe just the same thing I hold so dear when I look at her photographs: that inkling that someone, somewhere, thinks and feels the way I do. The little spark of recognition that makes me feel a little less isolated.
Did I find that? Did I ever.
On mark-making and legacy:
When an animal, a rabbit, say, beds down in a protecting fencerow, the weight and warmth of his curled body leaves a mirroring mark upon the ground. The grasses often appear to have been woven into a birdlike nest, and perhaps were indeed caught and pulled around by the delicate claws as he turned in a circle before subsiding into rest. This soft bowl in the grasses, this body-formed evidence of hare, has a name, an obsolete but beautiful word: meuse. (Enticingly close to Muse, daughter of Memory, and source of inspiration.) Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form, but when I gently press my hand into the rabbit’s downy, rounded meuse it makes me wonder: will all the marks I have left on the world someday be tied up in a box?
On the pain of place:
In Wales, for example, Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad). But, and this is important, it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.
On self-confidence (or the lack thereof):
Every time it’s the same. It’s easy to prove to myself that good pictures are elusive, but I can never quite believe they’re also inevitable. It would be a lot easier for me to believe they were if I also believed that they came as the result of my obvious talent, that I was extraordinary in some way. Artists go out of their way to reinforce the perception that good art is made by singular people, people with an exceptional gift. But I don’t believe that I am that exceptional, so what is this that I’m making?
On beauty and sadness:
As for me, I see both the beauty and the dark side of things; the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as well. And I see them at the same time, at once ecstatic at the beauty of things, and chary of that ecstasy. The Japanese have a phrase for this dual perception: mono no aware. It means “beauty tinged with sadness,” for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay. For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.
I could go on and on. If I were the type to write in books, my copy of Hold Still would be underlined and highlighted on nearly every page. She says not just the things I would say, but she says them the way I would say them (if I might flatter myself to be nearly the writer she is).
What stands out to me even more than the similarities, though, are the differences. Mann and I both come from a rural area, but she grew up on a Virginia farm while I grew up in a woodsy California neighborhood. She describes herself as a young girl as “feral” and “naked,” while I was straight-laced and buttoned-up. She was raised in relative wealth and privilege; when I was a child, we had to make do much of the time. It was no surprise that she went to school for the arts; it was no surprise that I studied engineering. Somehow, though, we both seem to have arrived at the same set of obsessions. How does that happen? What does it mean?
It’s not a perfect book. Or rather, it didn’t sit perfectly with me. At times when she speaks in defense of her family images she seems to want things both ways. To be sure, I agree when she argues that her children shouldn’t be judged by the photographs, because photographs aren’t people. But then, she also comes close to saying that critics shouldn’t say that her photographs don’t show “mean” or “cold” children because her children aren’t mean or cold.
And though I find it admirable that she tries to reckon with the racial legacy of the South she loves, and with her own history with race and privilege, I can’t help feeling a certain ambivalence about how she approaches the topic. She admits the hypocrisy of the situation, but can’t quite extricate herself from it:
Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raise by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly †insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them. This reflects one side of the fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private. Could the feelings exchanged between two individuals so hypocritically divided ever have been honest, untained by guilt or resentment?
I think so. Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me.
She is open in her criticism of the system of racial segregation she grew up in. She acknowledges her part in it, how she benefited from it, how her biases blinded her in her youth. But I’m torn between finding her candor laudable and seeing some bit of self-congratulation in it. At that, though, I felt the same ambivalence in her, a desire to see herself in a good light tempered with a hint of self-loathing in having to make the story about herself. Where that leaves me, I’m not sure. I might squirm a bit at a white, affluent Southerner talking about race from a position of power, but I’d likely find it odd, too, if she simply didn’t bring it up at all. You can draw your own conclusions; I’m sure she’d want no less.
And in that, perhaps it’s no different from the rest of the book. Mann never presents herself as anything other than the same sort of fallible human that we all are. Her art, not to mention the deeply insightful and lyrical writing in this book, might raise expectations for those of us in her audience, and so often those expectations are borne out. But looking for The Answers from any person is on some level a fool’s errand, and what we get from this book is still remarkable and resonant, even if the person painted by its portrait isn’t perfect. Hold Still is an exceptional articulation of the inner life of an artist who, though she wouldn’t admit to it, is a genius. After this book, I continue to labor in her shadow, and I suspect I always will. I hope someday I’ll be able to contribute something half as meaningful.
Started: 10/28/2015 | Finished: 11/21/2015
The Land Across
By Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe has written some of my favorite books, books that I consider to be among the finest American novels in any genre. Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus are fantastic works that I have returned to many times, each time finding something new. And his three-series, twelve-volume epic starting with The Book of the New Sun is truly a masterpiece. But as much as I love some of his stories, others—like 1984’s Free Live Free or the 2004 duology The Wizard Knight—left me flat. So I always look forward to reading a new Wolfe novel, but I’m also always a little apprehensive about which experience I’m going to get. The Land Across, unfortunately, was in the latter category.
The story follows its narrator—a travel writer whose name is eventually revealed to be Grafton—as he journeys to an obscure Eastern European country, intent on being the first person to write a travel guide about the place. He is immediately taken into custody by the Stasi-esque national police as he crosses the border, and as the book continues he finds himself involved in a cloak-and-dagger plot involving forces both political and apparently supernatural.
Because this is a Wolfe novel, nothing is ever quite spelled out, and it’s clear that Grafton isn’t telling us the whole story. I ended up as impressed as I always am by the technical skill of Wolfe’s writing, but still fairly confused about what the hell actually happened. I haven’t read Kafka before, but that name has been thrown around a lot in other reviews I’ve seen, referencing the style and dialogue and intrigue, and the pervasive feeling of strangeness throughout the book—the writer I was most strongly reminded of was Milan Kundera. (I’ve only read one Kundera novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what happened in that book either.)
But this is how it goes when a Wolfe book doesn’t land for me: I end up assuming that I must have just missed something, or didn’t work hard enough to figure it out. So in terms of a recommendation, I’m not sure where that leaves me. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book, but it nevertheless still struck me as good. Maybe you’ll have better luck with it than I did.
Started: 10/4/2015 | Finished: 10/15/2015
Am I Actually Defending Thinkpieces? I Guess I Am.
Twitter brought me a Jezebel article this afternoon called “Damn, You’re Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That’s So Freakin Brave and Cool”, by Jia Tolentino. The gist of it is that reading more diversely is good, even necessary, but that writing thinkpieces about doing so is just another way of othering underrepresented writers and making diversity about yourself. It’s an interesting perspective, and based on who I saw retweeting the link it’s certainly one that seems to resonate with a lot of minority writers. Still, it doesn’t really sit right with me.
Now, I imagine that the easiest, quickest negative response would be something along the lines of “Can’t win for trying.” And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t briefly go there myself, especially given the goals I recently set myself. The thing is, though, in her larger point about majority engagement with capital-D diversity, I agree with Tolentino. “If only it were possible to do something good and rewarding without publicly prioritizing what effect that act has on you,” she says. Moreover, like so often seems to happen with corporate diversity initiatives, there’s a real danger of people assuming that simply having some sort of diversity policy is the same as solving the actual problem. It reduces normalizing diversity in literature to something like a fad—here today, forgotten tomorrow.
Still, as much as I agree with Tolentino on one level, I’m much more ambivalent on another. The problem for me, I think, is summed up in the last few lines of the piece:
If you were a queer writer, or a woman of color writer, would you want someone to read you because they thought they were doing something dutiful about power structures? Or because they gravitated to you, not out of any sense that you would teach them something about diversity that they could then write about in a year-end essay—but that they just read you because you were good?
How similar does that sound to some of the arguments against affirmative action, ones I especially tend to hear from more privileged minority groups? “I don’t want to feel like I got a job just because someone was trying to fill a quota.” But just as with the affirmative action, it presents a bit of a false dilemma. The choice here isn’t necessarily between being read because of your talent and being read because of your gender or color or sexuality. In the real world, the choice can often be between being read because of a diversity mission and not being read at all.
In a perfect world, women writers, writers of color, queer writers would rise to the top and gain a following on the strength of their writing in much the same way that we imagine straight white men do. But we are just not at that point yet. If diverse writers are seeing any uptick in readership and stature in the industry, if there is any push right now toward a more inclusive mainstream, it’s only because the need to actively seek out diverse books is being called out so loudly, and that that call is being repeated widely enough to gain momentum.
Of course it would be great for underrepresented writers and artists to be sought out solely on the basis of their talent. But at this point, without an active effort to bring those writers more attention (and therefore more sales, the only signal with any meaning to the publishers and retailers who determine what actually gets onto shelves) then it’s difficult to imagine the status quo ever changing.
Goals for 2016
Last January I set myself a series of goals for the year. So, how did I end up doing on those? Let’s take a look.
Goal: Read 25 books in any genre.
Result: I finished the year having read 39 books, so, not too shabby.
Goal: Run 600 miles.
Result: I ran only 295 miles in 2015. This was partially due to taking six weeks off after hurting my knee, and partially due to working late too often, and therefore being too tired to wake up early to exercise.
Goal: Write 24 non-review, non-photo blog posts of at least 1000 words.
Result: I wrote three essays in 2015 that met these criteria. If I relax the restrictions a bit and include a couple of particularly long, essay-like reviews, I can get the number up to five.
Goal: Post 52 photos to this blog.
Result: 28. I was doing pretty well until June and then nothing.
Goal: Get accepted into at least 2 juried exhibitions or competitions.
Result: I got into 2 juried group shows this year. I also had my first solo show, so, not bad.
Goal: Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
Result: I just got this in under the wire, having spent Wednesday taking a bunch of terrible photos.
Goal: Finish writing the text for the “It Forgets You” book.
Result: I did not do this. Not even close.
Goal: Shoot at least 500 frames for my Mira Mesa project.
Result: I’m not actually sure how many frames I shot for this project. Currently there are 50 images in my Lightroom catalog which were shot in 2015 and have been tagged “Mira Mesa.” But I also have three months of untagged photos, not to mention that I didn’t keep track of any images I may have deleted. My “keep” rate is somewhere around one in five, so let’s be generous and say I shot around 250 frames.
Goal: Complete a rough draft of a photo book for my “All Good Things” series.
Result: I did not even start a rough draft of a book for “All Good Things.” The closest I got was a new edit and sequence for my portfolio reviews in October.
Goal: Shoot at least 12 self-portraits for the new series I’m working on.
Result: I shot one of these and then put this on the back burner while I re-evaluate the direction I want to take with the series.
So, out of ten goals, I accomplished three. And you know what? I’m calling that a pretty successful year. On to 2016!
As before, these are not resolutions. These are goals. Resolutions are commitments. Goals are something to reach for. Here we go:
- Read 24 books in any genre. Of those, at least 12 must be written by women, and at least 12 must be written by a person of color.
- Submit at least 5 proposals for solo exhibitions.
- Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
- Run 400 miles.
- Write at least 12 essays on any topic for this blog.
- Design and make a self-published version of my “Sheets” book.
- Conduct 12 recorded interviews with other artists.
- Design and make at least 1 new handmade artist’s book.
There’s more, but this seems like a good start. Hold me to it, people.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage
By Haruki Murakami
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from this book. I’m not sure exactly what I got from it, either. This was my first time reading anything by Murakami, though I have been aware for a while of his enormous popularity in Japan and the high regard in which critics around the world hold him. In the first few sentences of Colorless Tsukuru we are dropped right into the depths of the title character’s depression, a depression brought on by his rejection and ostracization from his group of friends. The reasons for that rejection are not made clear at first, but the effects are: cut off from the closest people in his life, Tsukuru Tazaki is left adrift, feeling no reason to continue existing. It’s a pretty bleak way to start a book, enough so that I put it down after the first page twice before finally getting through it. Was it worth it to put in the effort? Well, I’m not sure. A lot of the dialogue felt very clunky to me, though that could just have been due to the translation. More than that, Tsukuru himself is mostly unappealing, self-deprecating to the point of disappearing, despite the fact that he appears to be held in high regard by just about everyone else in the book—at a certain point, his repeated insistence that he is without color, that he has no special or even noticeable qualities, just comes off as whiny. On top of all of that, I also found the book’s portrayal of women to be uncomfortable, sometimes downright creepy. Still, despite all of that, there were moments—and more than a few—where it felt like the story was right on the verge of something profound. There was a lyrical, haunting quality to it that hinted at some insight which was never quite expressed.
Started: 10/4/2015 | Finished: 10/15/2015
How to Be Both
By Ali Smith
It’s a little surprising how well this book worked for me, given how, well, gimmicky I would normally find it. It’s written in two parts, one about an adolescent English girl who is dealing with the loss of her mother, the other about the talents and secrets of an up-and-coming painter during the Italian Renaissance. Both parts are written in a dense, oddly punctuated, stream-of-consciousness style. What’s more, the book was released in two different versions, in which the order of the two parts is switched. Normally, I would find all of that off-putting, and, honestly, it wasn’t easy for me to access the story at first. What drew me in, though, was lines like this: “It is also like H is trying to find a language that will make personal sense to George’s ears. No one has ever done this before for George. She has spent her whole life speaking other people’s languages. It is new to her. The newness of it has a sort of power that can make the old things—as old as those old songs, even as ancient as Latin itself—a kind of new, but a kind that doesn’t dismiss their, what would you call it?” Can you remember what it felt like to be a teenager in love for the first time? The feeling of being given a song and having it speak straight to your soul? How to Be Both is full of richly observed descriptions of the emotions of life. The relationships between a mother and daughter, a father and daughter, a brother and sister, between lovers, between friends. It was really quite breathtaking, and I’m not sure it could have done all it did with a more straightforward style and structure. So, on top of just being a great, emotionally resonant read, How to Be Both also made me re-evaluate some of my positions on what does and doesn’t constitute literary gimmickry. So that’s something.
Started: 9/24/2015 | Finished: 10/1/2015
By David Mitchell
Reading Cloud Atlas, I was struck by how structurally and thematically ambitious it was, but mostly what I kept coming back to was that I just can’t believe that anyone ever thought it would make a good movie. I’m not sure what to say about it, really. To be honest, I’m not even really sure I can explain what it was about. Each chapter not only introduces a new cast of characters, but also switches style and even genre. One chapter is an Age of Sail travelogue while another is a 70’s thriller, and still another is a dystopian science fiction. The connections between each are not immediately obvious, and the transitions from one to the next are quite jarring—indeed, the first chapter ends in the middle of a sentence! By the midpoint of the book, though, the complexity comes together and the structure becomes apparent. At the end of it all, I found myself impressed but still somewhat perplexed. Mitchell’s craft certainly can’t be denied, and I’d say I enjoyed the book, but I couldn’t really say what the point of it all was. Sprinkled throughout the book, various characters comment about or ponder the nature of experience, time, and memory, and it does feel as though Mitchell intended Cloud Atlas to provoke questions along those lines. Yet if he had any coherent statement to make, I wasn’t able to figure it out. Perhaps that’s fine. Perhaps it’s enough that the book was well-made and engaging. Not every piece of art has to be about something in order to be worthwhile. Still, I can’t help feeling that there was something I missed here. If you figure it out, let me know.
Started: 9/7/2015 | Finished: 9/23/2015
Hyperbole and a Half
By Allie Brosh
There was a point at which I was reading Allie Brosh’s highly popular blog, Hyperbole and a Half several times a week. Sadly, those days are over (for now, at least) as she’s only written eight posts in the past five years. Brosh’s blog was one of those wonderful things that seems now like it could only have existed in the late ’00s, back when blogging was still new and shiny. Hilarious, personal, sometimes achingly honest, Brosh had a way of relating (and drawing) her stories and recollections that always felt both singular and familiar. Well, fans of the blog will surely appreciate her 2013 book of the same name, as will, well, most people who aren’t dead inside. The book continues her signature MS Paint cartoon-style and self-deprecating humor, combining some new essays with past hits. I do find myself wishing sometimes that she’d write for her blog again, but from everything I’ve heard, she’s doing well and taking care of herself, so the book will have to be enough for now. And, you know, it does a pretty damn good job at that.
Started: 9/5/2015 | Finished: 9/6/2015