Book Review: Hold Still by Sally Mann

Okay, another book review, so many books on art seem to be coming into my line of sight these days. Riches indeed…


Last year, one of my favorite books was Rebecca Solnit’s marvelous book of essays, The Faraway Nearby. Solnit’s mind is wide-ranging, finding not the quickest but the most interesting route to the conclusion of each essay, even if digressions to Iceland or Frankenstein are involved. Her prose borders on poetry. With John Berger, she is one of the two living authors I idolize. The essays in The Faraway Nearby are linked through sadness, through the decline of Solnit’s mother from Alzheimer’s, and the huge pile of apricots that was an unexpected part of her inheritance. I suppose that to write about life without writing about death would be dishonest; do artists have the same necessity put on them?

This opening is leading into one of my favorite books for this year, Hold Still: a memoir with photographs, by Sally Mann. Mann’s reminiscences, as well as chapters on her parents and earlier generations, are also linked by death. Sally Mann’s photography has always had a tinge of death to it, a fixation she inherited from her father. Her photographs are often redolent of mortality, overtly or covertly. The blur and fuzz of her work, at times from glass plate negatives, developed by hand with volatile chemicals, seems to echo of the past. A series on Civil War battlefields, though superficially safe and pleasing, carries with it an ominous undertone, as though, if you peered closely, there might be a dead soldier or two lying in the shadows. Her series on the body farm, aka the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility, where donated corpses are laid out in the open air so that researchers can study how the body rots, is explicit, yet not as horrifying as might be imagined. Here I think of Goya, or, rather, a quote from Goya in a play John Berger helped write: “When somebody is dead, you can see it from two hundred yards away. His silhouette goes cold.” The dead in Tennessee are not people anymore, at least not in photographs. They are more and less at once.

I feel like an idiot for not having read Sally Mann closely before. Her prose is not quite the equal of Solnit or Berger, but it comes close, and her visual art stands eloquently on its own. Look at her website for more examples. She summarizes and, in some cases, details the lives of her family and herself. Famous people seem to appear unexpectedly, but not with fanfare and rarely with drama. Yes, her father was the one who examined former Vice President Alben Barkley when he collapsed while giving a speech, and declared Barkley dead. That’s the story, and because it was coincidental to the lives of the people Mann writes about, that’s all she tells of the story.

Mann grew up in Virginia, and its legacy of slavery and racism hangs about the book like an unwelcome sash, but she doesn’t shrink from it, even when it’s clear she is not a sociologist and is getting in a little over her head. For someone who has worked so hard at her art for so many years, the book is not cluttered with the minutiae of f-stops and photographic papers. She adds detail where it is relevant. The book is well illustrated, but it is not an art book. She has published several of those previously. She does not flinch from the controversy in the 1980s surrounding her photographs of her children, which shocked the prurient of that decade because the children were sometimes naked. The cries of “child porn” and such that came out of the political right at that time seem excessive now – heck, they seemed excessive then. But all the so-called sin in these photos is, as in most cases, in the eye of the beholder. Obscenity is something you make, not something others make for you. This is why when art is made to be shocking, in most cases it has a shelf-life shorter than that of a carton of milk.

Now for a challenging detail: I wanted to write about one photograph in particular, but there are no images of it online that I could find, and to grab a photo with my iPad would diminish the photo and lapse into a Sherrie Levine-like “appropriation” I am not comfortable with. So, a description, and why this image spoke to me.

The image in question is one of the color photos included – most of Mann’s work is black and white. If you’re reading along, it’s on page 451, with a beautiful detail on p. 454. It shows Mann’s father lying on a sofa, either dead or close to it; I believe it was taken after. The photo is small on the page, and the reproduction at that size makes me question what I am reading into it. As I have said, Mann’s photos have a softness, a blur, sometimes devolving into a state suggesting decomposition, like a frame from a Bill Morrison film. This photo is clear and captures beautiful vignettes within it; the detail on p. 454 is of his hand, with a little bracelet of flowers woven about his wrist. The coloring in his face, pale around the eyes, the clarity of the flowers and their stalks, the grey and brownish reds all around, immediately brought to mind Andrew Wyeth, another artist who always kept loss near the surface of his work. The reproduction and the texture of the paper suggest Wyeth’s dry brush technique. It is atypical of Mann’s work, yet it shows the unmistakable signs of an artist behind the camera. In this case, the subject remains a person, not merely a corpse.

An Andrew Wyeth, of a more symbolic bent than Sally Mann's photo, yet with some affinities.

An Andrew Wyeth, of a more symbolic bent than Sally Mann’s photo, yet with some affinities.

If you go here you can hear Mann herself read from the book.

UPDATE: Congratulations to Sally Mann for receiving a National Book Award nomination! It’s well deserved.


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