Sally Mann’s new book Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs is one of the most highly anticipated memoirs of 2015. As is often the case when someone who has achieved fame for their artistic genius writes a book, expectations are high. Having released an excerpt in the New York Times, the world is again abuzz with talk of the Southern photographer.
In the years following her wildly successful (and controversial) series Immediate Family, Sally Mann has become something of an art world celebrity. Shying away from the limelight, Mann lives a quiet life on her farm in Rockbridge County, Virginia where her husband “once irritatedley clocked five weeks” during which she didn’t so much as go to the grocery store. It is this kind of reclusiveness that has piqued the curiosity of fans and critics alike who believe that by viewing her photographs, they have gained a complete understanding of the person who made them. Hold Still casts a light on who Mann is; a mother, a daughter, a wife, a photographer, a writer, and a Southerner. And like any true Southerner, Mann realizes that to understand herself, she first needed to understand where she came from. Sifting through her ancestry in the form of letters, photographs, report cards, and newspaper clippings (many of which are reproduced in the book) she shifts between her own history and that of her parents, in-laws, and ancestry. Along the way she discovers scandal, deceit, industriousness, and desperation—and how all of these qualities have manifested themselves in her outlook on life and work.
The story of Mann’s own life is interwoven with the stories of those who have shaped it. She writes of her childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains, of her father, an eccentric country doctor, of Gee-Gee, the black woman who worked for the Mann family for fifty years and practically raised her. She writes of her grandparents and her friend Cy Twombly. She writes of her young marriage to her husband Larry and of her small farm in rural Virginia that is as much of a character in the book as any person. Each chapter moves fluidly between decades, a non-linear approach which accentuates the links between characters.
The book is an honest and thoughtful account of personal successes and failures, the making of her highly acclaimed bodies of work Immediate Family, Deep South, and What Remains, and the responses and controversies that followed. The strange and surprising history of her ancestry adds an element of Southern Gothic to the book. But her musings on photography, of specific projects and the medium in general, resonate most strongly. Immediate Family changed our understanding of the power that images hold, and sent unintentional shock waves through the art world and beyond. Her subsequent series Deep South and What Remains involved a transition into wet plate collodion, a process she describes lyrically: “When I was shooting collodion, I wasn’t just snapping a picture. I was fashioning with fetishistic ceremony an object whose ragged black edges gave it the appearance of having been torn from time itself.” Mann also states repeatedly that photography “robs us all of our memories.” These big themes—time and truth—are explored in both personal anecdotes and the discrepancies in her recollections. Lexington, too, is a recurring theme. Having lived there all her life, Rockbridge County, Virginia is the thread that binds the stories and the photography.
The images reproduced in the book give us a glimpse of Mann’s early photography. She also shows us behind the scenes images of her darkroom and fieldwork. We see humorous printing notes scribbled on the backs of test prints and outtakes. But many of the photographs are snapshots of daily life. By placing some of her more well-known images alongside prom pictures, long-deceased relatives, and photographs of Gee-Gee in the yard not only demonstrates the importance of context, it also helps to deliver her point that photographs are not memories and in fact often interfere with them.
Readers looking for a juicy tell-all about a notorious photographer who sometimes photographed her children in the nude will be disappointed. But those looking for an exquisitely written and masterfully crafted book about life, death, family histories, the American south, and a life of photography, should consider this book a must-read. It’s about pictures, but also about so much more, the same way that good pictures are always about something more. Hold Still is a “memoir with photographs” in which Mann tells stories in the two best ways that she knows how—with words and with pictures.
This review is in advance of the May 12 release of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs published by Little Brown.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.