Hold Tight

John Haber
in New York City

Sally Mann: A Memoir with Photographs

What do you do when someone insists on sharing her most intimate family secrets? If it is Sally Mann, you want to know more—and so, it turns out, does she.

Mann's photographs let on less than one may think, because she is first and foremost an artist, but they tempt one to see more by their very artistry. Her third collection, Immediate Family, enticed and shocked viewers with its portraits of her children. One could see them naked and clothed, in the ponds and woods of rural Virginia. One could see them as savage innocents or as sexually aware, and one could project that dual wildness onto the photographer or onto nature. The series earned her the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine, but also charges of pedophilia and serious threats, and she had to take them seriously. She is still responding to the outrage. Sally Mann's Hold Still (Little, Brown and Company, 2015)

Hold Still promises the lives behind the pictures, and it delivers, only the lives go far beyond her own. So do the pictures, in what the subtitle calls A Memoir with Photographs. "We all have them," it opens, "those boxes in storage, detritus left to us by our forebears." Over the course of the book she burrows into the public and private record, to lay out not just her work, her motives, and their detritus, but those of her ancestors as well. She also returns often to the reliability of photography and memory. Hold still and hold tight.

From the attic to the morgue

Not everyone will want to know more, because not everyone wanted to know half that much in the first place. Maybe her critics saw her family pictures as pornography, or maybe they saw her family as white trash. The first charge still angers her, but she addresses the second, too, implicitly—starting with the artful language of her prologue. "In our attic," those boxes "kept an increasingly disapproving vigil . . . over the promiscuous sprawl of stuff that piled up around them." They included "snapshots, of course, by the thousands," but also letters, "snarly haired dolls," and ever so much more, as "the residue of my own unexamined past." And then she will proceed to examine it and to demand their approval.

She has a vocabulary large enough to contain celadon, apotropaic protection, and moist refulgence. She can allude casually to William Carlos Williams and Emile Zola along with Pogo. Even when she overwrites, and at times she does, she has the self-awareness to mock her own efforts as "soaring into rhapsodic description." This child of farm country was born to a "proper Bostonian," a woman who lost herself in The New Yorker, and to a Texan, "a respectable medical doctor with the questing soul of an artist." She grew up on his stories, his intellect, his liberal politics, and his atheism. She attended a posh boarding school and an exclusive college, made the honor roll (except in math), and took her masters degree.

At the same time, she wants to be that "near feral child" who ran around naked long before her children. She displayed her own "precocious sexual behavior" as well. In a way, she wants to have it all, and she wants to find that duality in Virginia. Cy Twombly made his home there half of each year, in Lexington, and Robert Rauschenberg passed through as well, but their neighbors did not always know what to do with them. Mann is amazed by an invitation to lecture at Harvard—the amazement that "they wanted me, a photographer." Still, they did invite her, and she takes pride in it.

Would they, too, harp on her visions of childhood? She hoped that they would let her speak on "the work that came afterward, deeply personal explorations of the landscape of the American South, the nature of mortality (and the mortality of nature), intimate depictions of my husband, and the indelible marks that slavery left on the world surrounding me." And they did, getting not just an overview of her career, but also a preview of this book. Sure enough, her artfulness will include the art of self-reflection, much as when she ends the prologue with a return to the attic:

I secretly hoped I'd find a payload of southern gothic: deceit and scandal, alcoholism, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land, abandonments, blow jobs, suicides, hidden addictions, the tragically early death of a beautiful bride, racial complications, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of a prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder.

And that, too, summarizes an impassioned book.

The entirety runs along parallel tracks like these. It follows her over time, starting with the girl who loved horses and agreed to wear clothes only so that she could watch the family farm grow and hang out with the carpenters. Her work appears less as stages in her career than as the focus of her life. One has to know both to realize that her near abstract first collection, made for Washington and Lee University, centers on Rockbridge County, exactly like her opening chapter. There she remembers John Brown's thrill to its beauty at the very moment before his hanging. Already she manages to combine an appreciation of the scene before her with her politics, a taste for shocks, a leap in time, and an awareness of death.

A third and last track amounts to flashbacks, for those lives beyond her own. Her return from college with her husband, Larry, allows her to delve into his family. Their disapproval of her suitability for a son with five custom tuxedos masks their own southern gothic. It comes out only when they die, in a murder-suicide. Her next project after Immediate Family, landscapes suffused with darkness, leads her to her mother's family history—just as memories of Gee-Gee, the black woman who did much of the work of raising her, leads her to her photographs of African Americans and the price of slavery. The final chapter takes her deeper still, to her father and his obsession with death. And her last photographs here take her to the morgue.

Those euphoric moments

The back and forth is dizzying and impressive. "Anything," Harvard assured her. "Speak about anything you want"—and so she does. Still, she pieces together a personal history. Mann is born in 1951 in "the brick home of Stonewall Jackson himself, which was then the local hospital." She is the "stubborn hoyden" shipped off to boarding school because nothing else will contain her. She is the photographer who, even before Immediate Family in 1990, stirs a controversy with portraits of young women.

She is heir to the impoverished branch of an old New England family—and to the "pathos and peculiarities of my mother's past." She is "ashamed to open up the bulging folder of Maternal Slights," but she does, "as helplessly as bystanders at a curbside shooting." Most of all, she is the daughter of Dr. Robert Munger II, whose outward calm barely disguised his love and "an improbable obsession with death." He rode his motorcycle halfway around the world in a three-piece suit. He designed a bookplate for his readings with a skull. Yet he also read to her and wrote her disarming, adoring, and bookishly challenging letters.

Can a doctor be in love with death? Could his sense of mortality have granted him his "acceptance of human frailty," so that he could care for the very poorest of patients? Does it explain why she, too, sees "both the beauty and the dark side of things"? Did it lead her eye to the strangeness of her own children or the scars on a black man's back, as if fresh from a slave's whipping? "Am I suggesting here that I was born to redeem my father's lost artistic vision?" And what, then, does that say about her art?

She speaks of what she looks for in photographs—and not just her in own. She drops hints to her craft when she picks out a detail that most would miss entirely. In a portrait of J. P. Morgan by Edward Steichen, she sees the reflection off his armrest as a dagger in his hand. In a snapshot of her father, she sees the "hint of distress in those very blue eyes." For her, a detail matters as much as composition, because it adds to the mystery of the human. "When I see an ordinary landscape," she says, "I also see the underpinnings of death."

Whenever she returns to photography, her voice rises in excitement. "Almost the first thing I did after I finally met Larry . . . was to photograph him." She starts with her father's old Leica, and "I am still that girl when it comes to developing film." She makes every print herself, slopping on the chemicals. She switches to a large-format view camera, which she takes even into the room where she gives birth, so as not to miss a thing. She nurtures "those euphoric moments of visual revelation."

She finds her first models in The Family of Man and You Have Seen Their Faces, by Margaret Bourke-White. Both oblige her to look others in the eye. She dives into a box of old glass negatives left from around the Civil War. She finds a mentor in Twombly, who taught her not to manufacture perfection. He made photographs "not with a sharp Proustian vision but with an eye veiled by the famously thick, characteristically humid southern air." Yet she is also becoming her own—much as, years later, she returns to Twombly's studio as the locus of memories in tubes and rags of paint, a suitcase, a mandolin, streaks of paint along the floorboards, and beads of light from perpetually closed Venetian blinds ascending the wall. She adopts a pose from Dorothea Lange for her daughter, without knowing it, but she rejects the association of her photographs of black men with Robert Mapplethorpe.

The potential image

What, though, is she becoming? As Mann jokes, "clearly subtlety wasn't my long suit." And again, "it is easier for me to take ten good pictures in an airplane bathroom than in the gardens at Versailles," but why? Her own account has its tensions, including her defense of Immediate Family. At times, she is merely the observer, with an eye for beauty. "I never considered the images anything other than a sweet meditation on the figure."

She also insists on her distance from life. These are not simply children, but "figures on silvery paper slivered out of time"—and her children knew it. When critics object, they only make the girls feel guilty. When a reproduction blacks out their private parts, they lend the image the marks of shame. The originals, she rightly insists, convey not the certainty of lust but mysteries. "To whatever extent photographs can reveal the dark mysteries of a haunted landscape, I set out to make them."

The artifice, she says, lies less in the quality of vision than in waiting. Half of life is just showing up, and the other half is going through the contact sheets. She recalls the boy with a toy grenade by Diane Arbus. "Your eye would go straight for the . . . anomalous and life-altering split second, . . . the one where he looks like a freak. Of course she did. I would have, too."

Yet Mann also insists on her "maternal passion" and her attachment to her subjects. "I could drive right past the moonrise . . . that so dazzled Ansel Adams if I was on the way to get a good picture of the kids." She wants to remember every moment—"the puking, the pets, . . . the birthing." The book's very title, Hold Still, combines the practice of photography with mothering. I could hear my own mother telling me to sit still and to sit up straight. The same commitment draws her to every one of her series, from hill country to death.

If Mann is at all in denial, so is the South. It "is made up of such contradictions and juxtapositions." It bears "the gracious splendor of its lost world founded on a monstrous crime and the often retrograde, repellent politics of its modern one, elucidated in an accent and vernacular that are lyrical like no other." Some of the contradiction, too, lies in a photograph—which, she briefly considers, may always exploit its subjects for its own ends. It purports to retain everything, objectively and perfectly, even as it alters and creates memories. You remember "not the original impression left by experience, but the last time you recalled it."

For Mann, the treachery of memory co-exists with that precious moment of insight. A photograph robs us of our memories, in order to preserve "the humdrum and the miraculous, the inelegant and the ineffable." It brings "the rare, heart-pounding, break-squealing lurch to the verge after glimpsing a potential image." It helps her "project a different interpretation onto to conventional" and "make the commonplace singular." It allows her children to run naked, long after they are grown. It lets her retain her own sly and rebellious childhood, now touched by death.

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Hold Still, by Sally Mann, was published in 2015 by Little, Brown and Company. Her return to Cy Twombly's studio came in "Remembered Light," at Gagosian uptown through October 29.


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