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