The surest way for a gifted artist to gain fame in this country is to run afoul of the prudes, and so it was with photographer Sally Mann. She first came to national attention in the early 1990s, thanks to the hubbub that erupted over some striking nude pictures she took of her young children. With considerable grace and integrity, she weathered accusations that she was peddling child pornography and (even worse) being a bad mother, and she is now recognized as one of America’s finest art photographers. Her body of work—which includes haunting images of her family and the Southern landscape, as well as unsettling studies of death and decay—is remarkable for its beauty and singular intensity. Hold Still, her new memoir, is a fascinating meditation on the sources of that work. It’s also a reckoning with the unreliability of both memory and photography as ways of preserving the past.
Mann was born Sally Munger in Lexington, Virginia, in 1951 and describes herself as a “near-feral” child. She refused to wear clothes until she was five, and she liked to sneak out of the house at night to ride her horse “under the wild, fat moon.” Her father was a family physician, her mother a bookish woman who’d had to give up her own dreams of going to medical school. Robert and Elizabeth Munger, Mann writes, were “confused and concerned” by their wild child—who grew into an unruly teen—but they were well equipped to foster the creative side of her temperament. Both parents were discerning lovers of art and literature. Robert Munger, scion of a well-to-do Texas family, never quite abandoned his own youthful artistic ambitions, and he gave Mann her first camera. The place where they made their home, and where Mann has spent most of her life, shaped her sensibilities, too. Lexington is home to two universities and counted Cy Twombly, a longtime friend of the Mungers, among its residents. More importantly, the stunning Shenandoah Valley fed Mann’s spirit and lured her eye; she describes it as “the begetter and breathing animus of my artistic soul.”
Hold Still is structured around a literal excavation of the past in the form of ancient boxes of family photographs and keepsakes. These artifacts serve to anchor the narrative, which covers the lives of Mann’s parents and a couple of generations of their antecedents, as well as Mann’s own story from infancy onward. Many of the photos and letters are reproduced and embedded in the text, accounting for a sizeable number of the 400-plus images in Hold Still. (The rest are mostly Mann’s own photographs, including some not previously published.) In most hands, this show-and-tell approach might get a bit tedious, but Mann does more than use the images as illustrations; she interrogates them, puzzling over the stories they contain or seem to contain. One of the recurring themes in Hold Still is the “treachery” of photography, the way it replaces rich memory with a thin visual record of a single instant in time. “Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions,” she writes, “but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.”
Mann is no slouch at interrogating her own version of the past. Fully aware of the mind’s tendency to “polish its own beautiful lie,” her quest here is to arrive at some version of truth through a conversation between her recollections, the documentary evidence before her, and the perspective gained from more than sixty years of living. This is the usual work of memoir, but much of the pleasure in reading Hold Still comes from the way in which Mann makes that work wholly visible, explicit. For instance, the Munger family cook and housekeeper, Virginia Carter, is recalled by Mann as a genuinely loving and treasured member of the household, and there are plenty of snapshots to bear that out, but there is also an undeniable incongruity between this “truth” and what Mann now realizes must have been the unrelieved hardship of Carter’s life. Mann is left with the question of how her family could have been so callous: “That’s the mystery of it—our blindness and our silence.”
Mann devotes only a small portion of Hold Still to the flap over the pictures of her children, which were published in the 1992 book Immediate Family. It’s clear that she remains irked by the New York Times Magazine cover piece that spurred the nationwide flurry of media denouncements and moralizing. She was, she says, relatively innocent of the ways of big-time journalists and unwittingly gave writer Rick Woodward fuel to stoke the controversy. “I was a sitting duck preening on her nest with not the least bit of concealment,” she writes of their interviews.
Mann freely admits that all the criticism caused her pain and self-doubt, and she resents the confusion created for her children, who had been willing, unselfconscious collaborators in posing for her work, but what seems to rile her most about the whole episode is the ignorant, obtuse approach to art that marked much of the discussion. In response to a harsh remark made about her children’s character based on the photographs, she writes, “How can a sentient person of the modern age mistake photography for reality?” Likewise, she has no time for the people who gauge the worth of the photographs according to their opinion of her character: “If we only revere works made by those with whom we’d happily have our granny share a train compartment, we will have a paucity of art.”
In addition to its fairly exhaustive family and personal histories, Hold Still contains Mann’s account of most of her major projects, including an unforgettable description of her time photographing corpses at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center (also known as the Body Farm) in Knoxville. The book runs to nearly 500 pages, which might seem like a daunting amount of material for any reader who’s not a serious scholar of Mann’s work, but in fact her writing is so engaging and her intellect so lively that the long ride seems almost too short. This is clearly a book Mann needed to write, and her passion for the task gives Hold Still much of the same exquisite power found in her photography.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has attended the Clothesline School of Writing in Chicago, the Moss Workshop with Richard Bausch at the University of Memphis, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in White Bluff.