An Art Book Review: Hold Still by Sally Mann
We’ve followed and cherished Sally Mann’s fine art photography for many years and were shocked to recently discover that she is an incredible author as well. Maybe we are a bit late to the game, but her newest book - Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, certainly had us holding still, riveted to reading, delicious page after page.
It just isn’t fair that one person should have so much incredible dual talent within them!
Written in easy flowing words and pulling no punches, Mann has created an original personal history with the drama of a great novel. Rooted in honest, intense and offbeat declarations of her own Southern-bohemian life, it is rich with incident and heavily illustrated with memorabilia – journal pages, travel and family snapshots, report cards and letters. (And of course her beautiful black and white photography…)
As a mother, that of course included her own children, as in her series Immediate Family (below). There was so much ridiculous controversy about this body of work, that we just have to dig into the hoopla and over-the-top PC bullshit surrounding these photos. Every parent (unless they’re the repressed, uptight, narrow-minded types) have seen their own children, running around nude in the hot summers – whether at the beach or in their own backyard. To be ashamed of and/or to censor these innocent moments in time, is to negate the wonder of youth. Sexuality is part of the human condition and children are aware of it, whether we want to admit it or not. Especially in todays age, when the first question one hears at the boardroom table, on almost any irrelevant subject, is - “But is it sexy?”
Sally’s gorgeous photographs captured loving moments of her family, children’s attitudes, and play acting in a frank and honest way. Never do I feel these photos are “exploitive” in any measure, only beautiful, clear sited documents of growing up. The collective narrow-minded accusations hurled at Mann, might rather be aimed at themselves – if one sees these images as pornographic, they should probably examine their own hypocritical, sexual arousal.
(On an aside, after listening to the Fresh Air Interview with Mann – we have to say, shame on you, Terry Gross! – for jumping on that 20-year-old bandwagon and grilling Mann needlessly on the subject, returning repeatedly with prods and pokes, to sensationalize with that tired old “sex” card.)
In Southern Landscapes, Mann captures the historical deep South of her youth, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. These are a series of moody, almost gothic landscapes, focusing on swampy waters and old growth trees, filled with auras of foggy light and shadowy mysteries.
In Proud Flesh (above), she unflinchingly and poetically documents her husband Larry, ravaged over the years by muscular dystrophy.
In What Remains, Mann took pictures of rotting corpses (above) at the University of Tennessee’s anthropological facility at Knoxville, aka the “body farm”, where human decomposition is studied scientifically. The bodies are mostly left in an outdoor setting and lie there for months or even years.
Hold Still is a great read and fantastic memoir, the time travels of an intelligent and creative woman, brave and vulnerable, quirky and nerdy, reverential and blasphemous. Like most photographers her subjects are personally historical – what she lives in and around, what she saw on a daily basis. Mann’s work is both romantic and documentary, exposing the light and dark of innocence, bigotry, coming-of-age, eroticism, and mortality.
“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 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.”
“To be able to take my pictures, I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about, – And I must do so with both warm ardor and cool appraisal, with the passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart there must also be a splinter of ice.”