My review of Sally Mann's book, "Hold Still, A Memoir with Photographs"

March 04, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I recently read the book Hold Still, A Memoir with Photographs, by photographer Sally Mann. I recommend it. Sally is not just a very talented and creative photographer but a remarkable writer as well. Sally is a product of the south, the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, where she has lived all of her life – except for her school years – and she fits well into the rich tradition of the many remarkable writers from the south. Her choice of words is precise and her descriptions are vivid. This book weaves family history going back several generations, autobiography, very poignant tales of race relations in the 20th century south, descriptions of the Shenandoah Valley, the creative process in art and photography into a single whole that kept me captivated throughout. I found it inspirational.

Sally is a large format film photographer and she discusses her projects that have continued into the first decade of the 21st century. She gained fame and somewhat infamy in the early 1990’s when her project Immediate Family went on public display. It consisted of photographs of her three young children, from birth to about 10 years of age, some of which showed the children nude. The photographs are captivating, large format black and white images depicting the innocence of youth. But, somewhat understandably, some folks were offended. How could a mother put such images on public display? Is this not child abuse? Understandably, this project has the most words among her project discussions. The thinking and motivation that went into it, the surrounding controversy, the impact on her family, and her reactions and defense are covered in the book. Like her family photography, her writing about herself and her family holds nothing back.

To make my case that the book is inspirational and her writing exquisite, here are three short quotes from the book that I copied out and added to my (long) list of quotations worth keeping and reflecting on in the future (a list that includes words from Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and others). I think you will agree these thoughts are rich in ideas for photographers, and actually for everyone, to ponder and discuss. They are precisely and concisely written and each would make a great topic for an essay or blog posting, taking a pro or con position.

 

In response to one critic’s complaint about a photograph in Immediate Family, she writes:

How can a sentient person of the modern age mistake photography for reality? All perception is selection, and all photographs – no matter how objectively journalistic the photographer's intent – exclude aspects of the moment's complexity. Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time's continuum.

Sally Mann, Hold Still, p. 151

 

The following two snippets are from the book's preface and again, I just find them to be sublime and profound:

I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by the experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.

Sally Mann, Hold Still, p. xii

 

Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.

Sally Mann, Hold Still, p. xiii

 

Not all of her photography is to my liking, some of it is too graphic and gritty for my taste. Immediate Family is not in this category. There is no need for me to further expound on my likes and dislikes here. Like all good artists she pushes boundaries, the reader should be prepared to have his or her boundaries challenged.

To conclude, I found a personal connection with Sally as well. We were both born the same year and came of age in the tumultuous 1960’s. Our introduction to photography also bore some similarities, both of us getting our first cameras, an old Leica, from our fathers in our teen years. She lists Steichen's The Family of Man as a book she came across in her teens that inspired her, the same happened to me. Finally she married at age 19, the age my wife was when we got married. Sally is still married to the same person as am I, we are both past our 40th anniversaries.


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