Memoirs can be great or awful. Sometimes a memoir is nothing more than an author’s musings about some specific event in his or her life, with little to offer the reader beyond the author’s singular self-absorbed experience. Too much “me” and very little “why should I care?” That said, I have just read the second memoir in less than 12 months that I absolutely adored (the first being “H is For Hawk”– read earlier review). Sally Mann’s “Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs” is a great combination of personal stories, life lessons, and historic and cultural observations. A brilliant photographer, Mann describes a thoughtful way of looking at life through the literal and figurative lens. The book is a complex and moving story of family, place and meaning, including numerous photographs to illustrate the ideas along the way. “Hold Still” was just awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.
Sally Mann grew up in Lexington, Virginia, the third child and only daughter of a physician father and a beautiful, but reserved mother, who ran the book store at Washington and Lee College. Sally describes a childhood of privilege and wildness, being sent to boarding school at Putney in Vermont at the age of 16, midway through high school. Mann described her initiation to Putney as follows: “I was the most ridiculed minority of all: a dumb cracker, with a trunk full of very uncool reversible wrap around skirts my mother had sewn herself…Nobody at Putney had hydrogen peroxide blond hair teased into a beehive, nobody at Putney wore makeup, and nobody at Putney listened to the Righteous Brothers or wore her boyfriend’s letter sweater…” It was at Putney that Mann became interested in writing and then photography. After Putney, Mann enrolled at Bennington College. She met Larry Mann at Christmas break in 1969 and they were married 6 months later.
Larry came from the east coast and was the son of seemingly wealthy snobby east coast parents who were none too pleased about the choice their son had made for a wife. “When we announced we were going to get married in six weeks, his parents and grandparents burst into tears and left the table.” Needless to say, there was a great deal more drama where Larry’s family was concerned, although not necessarily of the type you might think based on my last sentence! Ultimately Larry and Sally return to Lexington.
Sally Mann took a series of photographs of her three children, frequently in the nude. When the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story in its September 27, 1992 edition entitled “The Disturbing Photographs of Sally Mann”, Sally received numerous letters which she divided into three categories: “For, Against and WTF”. Many of the letters questioned her skills as a mother and the impact the photographs would have on her children as they grew up. Generally Mann was able to put the writers’ concerns in proper perspective. But one letter writer commented that it was not the nudity that bothered her, but the looks on the children’s faces–“‘They’re mean’, this total stranger to my children states with authority.” In response to this comment Mann explains the illusion of photography. “How can a sentient person of the modern age mistake photography for reality?…Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.” The book’s description of the series and the responses, both from the public and from Mann, is deeply moving and thought provoking, as is almost everything else in this incredible memoir.
The memoir focuses on the beauty and history of the south and the impact of that beauty and history on art and culture. In terms of art, Mann describes the impact the beauty of Lexington had on artist Cy Twombly, who was born in Lexington and lived half of each year there. She quotes Wombly as saying that: “Where I’m from, the central valley of Virginia, is not one of the most exciting landscapes in the world, but it’s one of the most beautiful. It’s very beautiful because it has everything. It has mountains, there are streams, there are fields, beautiful trees. And architecture sits very well in it…”
Mann explores the south’s racial history and its impact on southern perspective and culture. On a trip through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Mann marvels at the juxtaposition of beauty and the frightful history of slavery and racism. “The pictures I wanted to take were about the rivers of blood, of tears, and of sweat that Africans poured into the dark soil of their thankless new home. I was looking for images of the dead as they are revealed in the land and in its adamant, essential renewal.”
But the racial issues addressed by Mann were not merely historic. She explores the south’s racial issues through family experience as well. She recalls being raised by her beloved Gee-Gee, a dedicated black woman who worked for the Mann family much of her adult life (until her early 90s!). Mann comments that “down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them.”
Her relationship with Gee-Gee best describes through experience some of the challenges faced by black southerners and the impact of the history of slavery. In response to her gradual appreciation of the role of history, including her own family history, in southern racial issues, Mann took a series of photographs of black men in an effort to “visually articulate my sense of the unsettling accounts left to us by that brooding curse.”
The book reflects a southern obsession with death. Initially Mann attributes the obsession to her father. But it unveils itself over and over in her photography and thoughts and in her recitation of the history of the south. Early in the book she comments that “It’s not that we southerners are exactly in love with death, but there is no question that given our history, we’re on a first name basis with it.” As to the impact this obsession with death has had on Mann, she observes in a compelling and beautiful passage that “as for me, I see both 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…for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic 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.”
A review cannot do this book justice. You have to read it. When you finish this remarkable memoir you will have learned about Sally Mann, but you will also have experienced a unique perspective about life, and about the impact of love, family, and history, on who we are and who we can become. I got this book from the library but I am going to buy my own copy. It’s a definite reread. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11164150__Shold%20still__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold