Exposed in a Southern Lens

Review: Sally Mann, ‘Hold Still’

Sally Mann / Wikimedia Commons
June 21, 2015

Midway through her memoir, Hold Still, photographer Sally Mann recounts the first of several journeys she took through the Deep South with her portable photograph studio, seeking, "To whatever extent it is possible to photograph air … To whatever extent photographs can reveal the dark mysteries of a haunted landscape." Using the archaic process of wet-plate collodion, which requires enough explosive, ether-based chemicals that her Suburban was "effectively a rolling bomb," Mann produced massive landscapes, sometimes 40 x 50 inches in size, whose washed-out ethereality and mystery can stir the viewer much like the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady or Michael Miley (whose work Mann discovered in an attic, and later saved, while working as the campus photographer at Washington and Lee University).

Driving through Mississippi with a local woman whose family once owned the site where Emmett Till’s body was recovered, Mann, who photographed it, recounts how, "We chatted as we drove, but even distracted as I was I still slammed on the brakes when I saw the roughly human-shaped concrete mound off to the side of the fields. ‘Oh,’ said Maude airily, ‘it’s how they bury people out here in the summer.’"

The image Mann produced—yellowy-grey, with a lone tree centered in the upper half and a cocoon-like shape angling beneath it like the slanted beam of an Orthodox cross—is like Hold Still itself in its blend of hauntedness, rurality, and the suggestion of mysteries that art touches obliquely. And that first sighting of the burial mound is very much like reading Hold Still—lulled by Mann’s Southern rhythms and mellifluousness, the reader must jam the brakes hard every mile or so, as more and more arresting images, narratives, and insights into art, race, family, and memory, present themselves.

As a memoir, Hold Still is an utter pleasure read. Mann fills it with photographs, from her own artworks and candid shots to historical artifacts, weaving them seamlessly into the narrative in the photodocumentary style of James Agee and Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or of W.G. Sebald. We watch her work develop from the sharp portraiture of Immediate Family to the misty and evocative landscapes of Mother Land to the disturbing images of corpses at the Body Farm in Tennessee that comprise the photographs of What Remains.

Mann is also a wonderful stylist; on one of her trips down South, she notes how "once those shotgun shacks began to appear along the road, I broke through into that transcendent dimension of revelation and elation that gleefully eludes … quantifiable time. The lazy shafts of late evening Mississippi sun heightened this time-unraveling sensation, illuminating vortices of cotton flies, like hundreds of bright, slow-motion tornadoes alighting upon the dark fields." And if she is at times Faulknerian in her syntax and Southern Romanticism, she always cuts the "sweet, rotting fecundity" of the South with wit. On the same trip, she writes that "I took a number of those smaller bottles [of ether], swaddled in bubble-wrap … praying that my rolling darkroom cum bomb didn’t get rear-ended by some meth-head who’d unknowingly met his chemical match."

Hold Still is organized in four sections, focusing on Mann; her mother; her African-American caretaker, Gee-Gee; and her father. Readers familiar with Mann’s photographs will find the first section the most interesting. It centers on Mann’s life in rural Virginia, from her wild youth ("the many boyfriends, the precocious sexual behavior, the high school intrigues, the vulgar, sassy mouth") to her life as a wife, mother, and major artist, those three threads intersecting at her family farm on the banks of the Maury River, "a constant for all of us, glowing steadily in the unreliable, teasingly labile shadow of memory."

Mann’s 1992 album Immediate Family was a flashpoint in the 1990s culture wars for its nude photographs of her young children, but those simple-minded complaints are dispelled by Mann’s layered reflections on the relation between family history, place, memory, the fiction of documentary art, and motherhood. (Those readers with children, particularly children in a rural, riverine setting, know that clothing is optional.) Mann’s own mother appears as a distant figure, whose own childhood was pained by "liars and depressives whose sexual messages were confusing, to say the least," and much of this section focuses on Mann’s Welsh grandfather and her own "definite kinship with those fakelorish bards wailing away about their place-pain."

Mann’s father appears a fascinating man, the racially progressive, wryly comic, debonair son of a wealthy Texas family (whose father, Robert Munger, revolutionized the process of ginning cotton, but was remembered as a major philanthropist), but for Mann, he remains frustratingly inaccessible, a country doctor whose passions for (or obsessions with) art and death clearly passed on to his daughter, but were rarely discussed between them.

It is her portrait of Virginia Carter, or Gee-Gee, the African-American housekeeper who was Mann’s surrogate mother, that proves perhaps the most unexpected and engaging section of the memoir, for it reveals that Mann is a powerful and unsettling thinker about race in America. Through her memories of Gee-Gee, Mann explores "the fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based the stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private." This section of the memoir is punctuated by questions: "I never wondered where she peed on the trips to visit my brothers at school in Vermont. Could she hold it until we crossed the Pennsylvania borders and the restrooms were integrated? Did any of us, besides her, wonder about that, about what would happen if she just had to go?"

By exploring her own childhood experiences of race, Mann exposes herself to the reader’s lens just as her own subjects are exposed to her camera. Sharing a brief and painful experience from her own childhood, Mann perfectly captures the deep-rooted problem of race in America: "when Gee-Gee came to [Mann’s first-grade] classroom to pick me up and collect my final report card, I remember being afraid that my classmates would think she was my mother." It is in her guilt-ridden conclusion to this moment, however, that Mann points to the only possible way forward: "I can hardly bear to even write these words." And yet she does, and we are fortunate for it.

Published under: Book reviews