Thursday, January 05, 2017

"Hold Still", a memoir by Sally Mann

This memoir is filled with photographs.  Born in Lexington, Virginia and firmly rooted there for much of her life, this widely known photographer reveals more than most would about her life, her family history, and husband and children.  It is an engaging book, and her family history was not at all as expected of someone growing up in a Shenandoah Valley town of 7,000 people, daughter of a country doctor.

As one part of the book, it as expected deals with the provocative photographs of her children on their farm in the late 1980's that drew praise as photographs from many in the arts but derision from many observers for the nudity that was shown.  Major publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal drew attention to this and opined about the morality or immorality of it all.  The name Sally Mann became well known, but the bulk of her photographic work was not.

She meticulously details her work process, other focuses of her work, the allure of the South and its mythology and culture, and the network of artists that she cultivated.  Cy Twombly was a Lexington native that visited each year, a collaborator and supporter.  Other artists were in residence at Washington and Lee University in Lexington from time to time.  She regularly traveled to meet with others in New York and abroad.  Her commitment to her farm and family was pervasive, but she was not isolated.  The Southern nature of her writing definitely leads her to a fixation on tradition, nature, destiny, and death.  Her education at the prep school Putney in Vermont may seem to belie her southern roots, but, as sometime happens, it may have only made them stronger.

This is an exceptional family history.  In particular, her father and his family history could be a book on its own.  For a local doctor available at all times for all people, his experience in culture, art, and literature was broad.  His acquisitions of artwork that began the late 1930's were prescient and no doubt financially rewarding to someone, maybe someday.  They were certainly their own reward on the walls of country houses.

A connection was felt here simply because she lived in and participated in the same times, she and her husband were traveling in Europe and staying in hostels in 1971(same year for me and my friends), she was nurtured in the same state, she lived along the now I-81 valley corridor in Virginia that connects my paternal grandparent's family hometowns in Tom's Brook and Lebanon, and a photographer from my hometown, Emmet Gowin, was clearly an early influence on her work.  He was born in 1941 and not personally known to me.

Opinion here is that the writing is well done with interesting detail and humor when it works, but it occasionally borders on being a bit overreaching in more flowery moments.  The same could be said for some of the photos, but knowledge of photography as an art form is not a specialty here.  The many photographs in the book, both hers and many family treasures from the past, help make this book special.

This book was published in 2015, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and a winner of a Carnegie medal for excellence in non-fiction.  That recognition must have been rewarding, but in researching Mann for this comment it was learned that her oldest son Emmett took his own life at age 36 in June 2016 after years of struggling with mental illness.  Apparently she rarely leaves the farm now, and that is a sad end to this book comment.



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