A Family Recipe

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
By Sally Mann
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015, 481 pp., $32.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Trish Crapo

Photographer Sally Mann may be best known for the images she created of her children between 1985 and 1991. For the photos in her show Immediate Family, which opened at Houk Friedman Gallery in New York in the spring of 1992, Mann used her three children as models. But hers were not romantic depictions of childhood. Mann photographed her daughter Jessie, her face swollen with hives from insect bites; her son Emmett, waist deep in a river, his expression a dark glower; her daughter Virginia nude, hands on her hips, another little girl in a white dress in soft focus behind her.

The photographs caused a stir. That the children appeared nude was part of the problem, but that wasn’t the only thing the critics found unnerving. These kids were not smiling. They didn’t seem innocent or particularly tender. In one photo, all three children, naked from the waist up, look at the camera with level gazes that one critic read as “mean.” In a nutshell, these were not kids in the way people felt comfortable thinking about kids.

Critics accused Mann of exposing her children to pedophiles or of taking advantage of them. In a New York Times article entitled, “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann” (September 27, 1992), Richard B. Woodward asked, “Can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits, even if—especially if—the artist is their parent?”

The controversy spurred by these photos is the primary way I had known of Mann before reading her new book, Hold Still.

Here, Mann relates that she began as a writer, filling stacks of diaries and notebooks from early childhood until her early twenties, when photography took over as her means of expression. Her father gave her his “travel-scarred Leica” in January of 1969, when she was seventeen, and Mann developed her first roll of film while at the Putney School in Putney, Vermont, that spring. Like many photographers, she describes as life-changing the experience of holding those first negatives up to the light, and she began to throw herself earnestly into what she describes as her “True Calling(s), writing and photography.”

Going to boarding school in the North removed Mann from her home in Lexington, Virginia, and the separation kindled what would become a life-long love affair with the southern landscape. Over the years, Mann, born Sally Munger in 1951, took many photographs at the farm along the Maury River where she had spent time as a child, and that she and her husband, Larry Mann, later bought from her family.

The pull of place, memory, and the sense of rootedness in the region’s history are currents that Mann returned to again and again in her work. Often working with large-format cameras and older techniques such as the wet plate collodion process, in which the photographer exposes the image directly onto glass plates, she created black-and-white photographs that ended up seeming both haunting and direct. It was as if staring at something through her camera produced not clarity, in the sense of unveiling her subject, but rather a deeper sensation of its mystery.

In Hold Still, Mann presents small reproductions of many of her photographs, along with thoughts about her creative process and stories of how they were made. And though the book is already a hefty $32.00 in hardback, I longed for a larger format to do justice to these photographs, as well as to the old letters, childhood drawings, snapshots, and other memorabilia that Mann includes as she recounts the history of her parents’ families.

In her writing, as in her photography, Mann is unafraid to expose her own vulnerabilities. In addition to presenting the finished versions of some of the images that were exhibited in Immediate Family, Mann provides unusual insight into her process by including some of the “duds” and “losers” that she made along the way. One example is a photograph taken in 1987 of her son Emmett, waist deep in a river, the flow of the water smoothed to a dark gloss by a slow shutter speed. Tracing her progress toward the final image, Mann shows seven attempts and points out what’s wrong with them: a mask and snorkel calling too much attention to themselves; Emmett standing too far out of the water; an out-of-focus light meter strap falling into the foreground; a strip of reflected clouds that she doesn’t like; and various exposure problems or compositional awkwardness.

“Then, eureka.”

In the final photo, the boy seems to have been captured midstride, stepping forward into the current. His fingers are splayed, his hands resting lightly but confidently on the water’s surface. His chin is tilted slightly down, his mouth set in a firm line, and his eyes cut up at the camera with a ferocity that Mann admits may have resulted from having been submitted to repeated takes in a cold river in October, over the course of seven or eight days. Mann insists that her children participated in the photographs of their own accord. She writes,

Children cannot be forced to make pictures like these: mine gave them to me.…The children, picture after picture, had given of themselves when the dark slide was pulled, firing off a deadly accurate look into the lens; a glare, a squinty-eyed look, a sad expression, whatever I asked for, as professional as any actor.

 

Mann attributes the misinterpretation of the motives behind her project to a profound divergence between southern and mainstream culture. To illustrate, she recounts the story of a “leather-elbowed, goatee-sporting PhD candidate” who once asked Mississippi writer Eudora Welty about a marble cake that appeared in one of her short stories. How had she come up with that “powerful symbol of the marble cake, with the feminine and masculine, the yin and the yang, the Freudian and the Jungian all mixed together like that?”

Welty paused, then replied in what I love to imagine as a quiet southern drawl, “Well, you see, it’s a recipe that’s been in my family for some time.”

Mann writes,

As critics, journalists, and the curious public bore down on our family, we began to understand that our family recipe was not from the cookbook of mainstream America. The ingredients in our work were exotic and the instructions complex. But in the end, as our own marble cake has emerged, swirled with dark confusion and light with angel food transcendence, the answer is Yes. Yes, and yes, resoundingly, absolutely, we would do it all over knowing what we know now.
Chapters on her mother, her black nanny Gee-Gee, and her father are presented in ways that open out to explore not just an interest in the forces insofar as they shaped her as an individual, but also in their broader implications. Using her own history as the trail on which to start walking, Mann explores race, class, family inclinations, and—insistently—death.

Late in the book, in a chapter entitled, “The Sublime End,” Mann tells of the photographs she made at the University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility, popularly called the Body Farm, where human bodies are left to decompose so that scientists may study the stages of decay and the factors that affect it. Sent there on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, Mann hauled her cameras and wet plate collodion darkroom to Knoxville and set about photographing bodies in various stages of decay. The photographs are difficult to look at. They are gruesome, even sickening, such as the one that shows “wasps and yellow jackets … drowning in the spreading brown pond of goo beneath what used to be a face.” For the first time in 400 pages, I found the images in the book to be quite large enough!

But I mean “gruesome” and “sickening” as description, not judgment. I admire Mann’s ability to push past her first squeamishness and keep on looking. And I am moved by her compulsion to understand the mystery of death—which haunts me, too. Her photographs answer questions that, when push comes to shove, I don’t seem to really want answered. I turned away from the marbleized patina of dead flesh, bones laid out in skeletal outline on the earth, corpses lying clothed or nude upon the ground as if rolled from the back of a pick-up and abandoned. But though I found the images unsettling, I knew from everything that came before this chapter, that Mann’s close attention to the decaying physical body is not gratuitous. She is chasing a larger truth. She writes,

Where does the self actually go? All the accumulation of memory—the mist rising from the river and the birth of children and the flying tails of the Arabians in the field—and all the arcane formulas, the passwords, the poultice recipes, the Latin names of trees, the location of the safe deposit key, the complex skills to repair and build and grow and harvest—when someone dies, where does it all go?

 

Whether she is photographing the effects of her husband Larry’s advancing muscular dystrophy on his body, Civil War battlefields, or African American men, Mann is always focused both on the specifics of her subject and on a larger question that resonates beyond it. In a chapter entitled, “Who Wants to Talk About Slavery?” she writes,

What I want to do is find out who those black men were that I encountered in my childhood, men that I never really saw, never really knew, except through Gee-Gee’s eyes or the perspective of a racist society. It’s an odd endeavor, and the remarkable thing is that my models are willing to help me try.
And she writes:
In general, I am past taking pictures for the sake of seeing how things look in a photograph, although sometimes, for fun, I still do that. These days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept. This work with black men, though inchoate and not yet even printed, seems to be a little bit of both.

I appreciated these moments when I got a glimpse beneath the black cloth Mann drapes over herself and her large format camera, and into her mind. Not all good photographers are also good writers. Mann is both. For example, this description of what it is like for her to “really see”:

Certain moments in the creative process, moments when I am really seeing, are weirdly expansive, and I develop a hyperattuned visual awareness, like the aura-ringed optical field before a migraine. Radiance coalesces about the landscape, rich in possibility, supercharged with something electric, insistent. Time slows down, becomes ecstatic.

 

Hold Still is a book not just for lovers of photography but for anyone who has struggled to create, or felt a deep love for a landscape—whether it is the one she was born to or one chosen later—or for anyone who has tried to untangle the knots of family lineage in order to understand herself.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer. She has completed two volumes of The Leyden Portrait Project, a series that, through photographs and interviews, documents the lives of residents in her small town of Leyden, Massachusetts. She also covers writers and the visual arts for The Recorder, an award-winning newspaper in Greenfield, Massachusetts. She recently completed a book, Dune Shack, a compilation of photographs and written musings about her artist’s residency in a dune shack in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Photographs from Dune Shack were exhibited at Trident Booksellers and Café in Boston from mid-May to mid-August. Trish has been awarded a second residency in the dunes in September.

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