One of the first statements photographer Sally Mann makes in Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs is that she’s not a writer. It’s untrue: while her eloquent, often poetic prose speaks for itself, Mann also reveals later that she has a master’s degree in creative writing and has been writing all her life (though not professionally). Her denial, though, isn’t misdirection so much as apprehension: she’s discussing her invitation in 2008 to deliver one of the prestigious Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University. Worried that she’s not qualified, she agonizes over the decision for nearly a year before finally accepting the invitation.
Immediately after she does, she writes, “the self-doubt that had dammed up so much behind its seemingly impermeable wall allowed the first trickles of hope and optimism to seep out, and through the widening crack possibility flooded forth. Insecurity, for the artist, can ultimately be a gift, albeit an excruciating one.” It’s the first example of many in which Mann uses an anecdote to explicate or investigate a larger truth; nothing is included simply for the sake of telling her own story. Starting with boxes of family memorabilia from her attic (which she exhumed in order to find inspiration for the lectures she’d agreed to deliver), the book examines the history of the people who’ve been influential in her life: her parents, her husband, and Gee-Gee, her African-American nanny.
From her rebellious childhood, running wild (and usually naked) on the family farm in picturesque Rockbridge County, Virginia, to the birth of her own children (which in one case she tried to photograph, reaching up to push the shutter button as the baby’s head crowned), everything relates to Mann’s photography in some way—and vice versa. The picture of her giving birth turned out blurry, but she soon began to use her sometimes-naked children as photo subjects, leading to the creation of the series that made her famous. She writes that she was naive enough to be caught totally off guard by accusations of child pornography, sparked by her 1992 book Immediate Family; in that pre-Internet era, she says, she’d never even seen child porn. Showing her offspring’s nude bodies didn’t seem unusual to Mann—or, for that matter, to her children, who were given veto power over what images were included in the book.
What’s really surprising is the lack of controversy generated by a more recent series, What Remains, which depicts rotting corpses. Mann obtained permission to take photos at a body farm—in this case, the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility, where human decomposition is studied by leaving dead bodies (donated or unclaimed) out on a three-acre plot and letting nature do its work. Mann’s photos are unflinching, her descriptions even more so. She names one of the corpses Tunnel Man and describes the maggots “spilling out of his nostrils and ears,” the wasps and yellow jackets “drowning in the spreading brown pond of goo beneath what used to be a face.” Somehow, the close-ups of the man’s face are less disconcerting than Mann’s description of it.
The photos don’t feel voyeuristic, though—Mann’s intent isn’t merely to shock but to investigate and contemplate. She writes:
“I found him good company, Tunnel Man. He wasn’t afraid of death, he was in no pain, and he had finally relinquished control. He was so much less painful to be around than, say, my then-living mother, lying on her back in the retirement home, tears leaking from her eyes, her face balled up with fear. In a sense, Tunnel Man had more life in him; life was feeding on him, the beetles and worms making inroads and leaving behind soil into which stray seeds would sink their fibrous roots.”
There’s an underlying curiosity to Hold Still: Mann is exploring her history, trying to understand what makes up the foundation of her life. In the same way her photography probes a subject, whether it’s death or the troubling historical treatment of African-Americans in the south (her current project at the time of the memoir’s publication), the book is an investigation rather than a dissertation, a thoughtful self-portrait as intimate and captivating as her best photos. v