Staff Picks: 'Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs'

I read a lot of book reviews, have edited quite a few, and written dozens myself. The best reviews convey essential information about the book under consideration, but more important, either the reviewer’s honest disappointment or passionate endorsement. Dwight Garner is perhaps the most engaging, and fair-minded, of the daily New York Times book critics. I always make a point of reading him, and after coming across his utterly smitten review of the celebrated photographer Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, I went right out and plunked down $32 for the hefty volume. As usual, Garner was right. Not only is Mann an exceptional photographer, a fan of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Graham Greene generally, but she is also a remarkably talented writer with a gift for acute social observation and disarming personal confession. The woman writes one beautiful sentence after another. On the challenge of landscape photography, for instance: “Working in the inexhaustible natural pageant before me, I came to wonder if the artist who commands the landscape might in fact hold the key to the secrets of the human heart: place, personal history, and metaphor.”

The daughter of an artistically inclined family doctor and a liberal-minded mother who ran a bookstore, Mann grew up in the 1950s and ’60s near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Her father was an iconoclastic atheist from a wealthy Alabama and Texas family, her mother from more cramped and unconventional circumstances in Boston. As was the region’s custom, young Sally was raised by the family’s desperately poor but immensely dignified black nanny, always known as Gee-Gee, whom Mann remained devoted to as an adult. A rambunctious child and rebellious adolescent, Mann once returned home boasting of how she had defied local taboos by giving a young black man a ride in her car. Gee-Gee wasted no time in making it clear that what Mann had done was not an act of liberal-minded generosity, but had in fact greatly endangered the young man.

In writing about both her Southern and Northern ancestors, Mann is perfectly attuned to local culture and customs, whether the racial politics of the post-Civil War South or the social hierarchies of Brahman Boston. She also paints a disturbingly vivid picture of the thwarted ambitions and shocking murder-suicide of her husband’s parents, who struggled to climb the greasy pole of one of New York’s tonier suburbs. Mann herself graduated from the progressive Putney School in Vermont, and attended Bennington, only to return to her beloved Virginia where she and her husband raised their three children in modest circumstances. One of the more touching, if not astonishing, parts of Mann’s story is that she has been married to the same man since she was eighteen, a record of constancy hardly common among us baby-boomers.   

Mann is perhaps best known for a series of photographs of her young children, many of them nudes. The book, Immediate Family, was published in 1992, and caused quite a stir, with critics suggesting the material was exploitative, if not pornographic. Mann’s defense of herself and her art is rigorous and persuasive, and the photographs themselves have more than survived the test of time. On this controversy and others, Mann is as feisty as she seems to have been hard-headed as a teenager. Another of the great rewards of Hold Still is Mann’s detailed commentary on the process of making art, both as a photographer and a writer. As she ruefully notes, failure is far more common than success, and success when it comes is mostly a gift.

My only criticism of Hold Still is that Mann and her editors do not know what the Immaculate Conception refers to. Readers should also be aware that Mann is as fearless in confronting, photographing, and writing about dead—and even decomposing—bodies as young and healthy ones.

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Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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