Driving down River Road an hour outside of New Orleans, a byway named for the manner in which the pavement follows the curves of the Mississippi, the passengers in our car were silent. Under a hush, we took in the Spanish moss-draped oaks and looming plantation homes, the timeless fields that stretched for miles. It is a landscape for which words are often faulty, inept. They can only attempt to get at certain indescribable qualities. Which is why photographs can be so effective in construing the essence of the Great American South. Sally Mann’s, in particular, get at that etheric environment: the way the pervasive humidity blankets a patch of cypress knees that arch out of a swamp; how the knots on a certain tree are wrought deep into the bark, as the south’s own ragged history is worn into its face; the way a civil war battlefield is caught in some forever fog. In her photographs and her memoir, Hold Still, Mann presents a captivating version of that southern body in all its twisted beauty.
Hold Still is a portrait of Mann and of the south—of an individual who identifies inextricably with her southern birthplace. “We southerners,” Mann writes, “like Proust, have come to believe that the only true perfection is a lost perfection, buying into our own myth of loss by creating a flimflam romance out of resounding historical defeat.” Mann’s words are often sumptuous, and her writing mirrors the visual and philosophical nature of her photographs. “The early poetic language and my later elegiac landscapes each served as primary, repeating threads running through my life, the warp and woof of memory and desire.” She even calls her images her “(poem-) photographs.” Mann was a poet first, before discovering photography during her time in a Vermont boarding school.
At times her sentences brim over with rich language, becoming a bit saccharine, overindulgent. But these sins are easily forgiven; after all, overindulgence is a southern tendency. Think: pralines, pies, anything conceived in the kitchen of Paula Deen. Sweet sentences are apt for a southern story. Mann’s nearly five hundred-page memoir lacks a dull moment—partially due to the beauty of her language, and partially because of her striking photographs, and the ones she dug up from the family attic.
Capturing this complex history of the south is not a straightforward endeavor, as Mann—a white, female artist—notes. Discussing her latest project, she describes how she is seeking to “find out who these black men were that I encountered in my childhood.” She writes: “At the most base level, making these images is exploitative, reductive, and fraught. But at a higher level, which portraiture at its best can achieve, the results can also be transformative expressions of love, affirmation, and hope. If transgression is at the very heart of photographic portraiture, then the ideal outcome—beauty, communion, honesty, and empathy—mitigates the offense.”
If you’re looking for a gilded portrait of southern privilege complete with sweet tea and white columned mansions, then this is not the book for you. It is not necessarily a southern gothic either—not some dark twisted fantasy of life below the Mason-Dixon. Rather, Mann tries to portray the complexity of her world, the beautiful and the haunting, as it actually exists. There is the murder suicide of her parents-in-law, the stalker who tormented her kin after “The Family Pictures” made her (in)famous, and a struggle to come to terms with her own part in “the fundamental paradox of the South”—how in a society based on public segregation, a black caretaker, Gee-Gee, intimately, adoringly raised a white girl whose own parents kept her at a distance. Having also spent my formative years in Virginia, I appreciate that Mann can simultaneously worship the state’s undeniable natural beauty and residual charm while also confronting the hypocrisy of a culture that often sweeps its dirty history under the rug.
In addition to contemplating the south, Mann discusses her art-making, giving us a window into her evolution as a photographer: “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. But these days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept.”
Which means that she’s also revisiting old photographic experiments. To those interested in what she calls “the family pictures”—the photographs Mann took of her children, often naked, at her and her husband’s farm in Rockbridge County—Mann provides a satisfying account of her thought processes regarding how a private artistic act became a public ordeal. She writes:
Unwittingly, ignorantly, I made pictures I thought I could control, pictures made within the prelapsarian protection of the farm, those cliffs, the impassable road, the embracing river. That’s the critical thing about the family pictures: they were only possible because of the farm, the place. America now hardly has such a thing as privacy… For miles in all directions, there was not a breathing soul… we were isolated not just by geography but by the primitive living conditions: no electricity, no running water, and, of course, no computer, no phone. How natural was it then, in that situation, to allow our children to run naked?… They spent their summers in the embrace of those cliffs, protected by distance, time, and our belief that the world was a safe place.
Throughout Hold Still, Mann makes herself accessible to the reader, though you may not find her to be entirely relatable. (Who else can say they dined regularly with Cy Twombly, could call William Eggleston “Bill,” deposited a fresh specimen at The Body Farm, and lives with their devoted husband on an isolated Virginia farm where their children run nude, free?) It’s as if she were holding a photo album between your laps and saying, ‘take a look at this photograph of my father,’ ‘see this picture I took right outside my back door one morning?’ Don’t hesitate to take a closer look; it is Sally Mann’s family album, after all.