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When a Memoir Isn't: Sally Mann's 'Hold Still'

In chapter after chapter of Hold Still, Sally Mann unfolds the dark secrets of her father, her mother, her adulterous great-grandmother -- everyone, it seems, but Mann herself.

Hold Still
Sally Mann

Little, Brown, and Company

May 2015


As a longtime admirer of Sally Mann's gorgeous, often controversial photography, I eagerly began her memoir, Hold Still, reading with increasing bewilderment, until I finished feeling I knew Mann no more than when I began.

Negative book reviews are the most difficult to write. When a book's author is an accomplished artist, double that effort. Atop this, Mann was roundly criticized by reviewers, critics, journalists, and an incensed public over 1992's Immediate Family, an exhibit featuring nude photographs of her children, then aged 12, 10, and 7. Hold Still makes it clear the experience still rankles. This reviewer has no interest in adding to Mann's pain.

With the above caveats in mind, let me say my disappointment stems from Hold Still's impersonality. Never have I read a memoir—or a book purporting to be one—revealing so little of its author. Abjuring the memoir's traditional structure of a life cycle, Mann instead opts for an idiosyncratic course delving deeply into the lives of her ancestors. Readers learn of great-grandparents, grandparents, even Mann's crazy in-laws. She writes probingly of these people and of Virginia Carter, or GeeGee, the woman who raised her. Fellow artist, friend and neighbor Cy Twombly is also afforded many pages.

But rarely do these often painful revelations return to Mann herself. In chapter after chapter—Hold Still clocks in at 482 pages—Mann unfolds the dark secrets of her father, her mother, her adulterous great-grandmother. The reader is left wondering why Hold Still is called a memoir at all. A family history, perhaps. But not a memoir.

Mann was born in historic Lexington, Virginia to seemingly mismatched parents. Her doctor father channeled his stifled artistic impulse into a bizarre obsession with death, while her propriety-prizing mother once yanked an inebriated Carson McCullers from a bathtub. Mann's mother-in-law shot her husband, then turned the gun on herself.

Describing herself as a "feral" child, Mann so hated clothing that she went without until age five. She grew into a rebellious, horse-loving teenager. When her parents sent her to Vermont's exclusive Putney School, Mann found the transition wrenching: "I was suddenly living in another country where my currency was worthless."

Mann continued her rebellious ways at Putney, breaking curfew, writing a great deal of sophomoric poetry, getting busted for shoplifting. The discovery of photography is barely touched on. Mann writes: "Maybe I didn't know it at the time, but I had found the twin artistic passions that were to consume my life."

The other passion, writing, gets less space than photography: a master's thesis on Pound merits a single throwaway sentence. One evening, "a group of us" are gathered at the Mann home with Twombly and his partner Nicola. As Twombly begins a story about Italy and Ezra Pound, Mann writes: "I mentioned my past fascination with Ezra Pound... and about whom I'd written my master's thesis."

This is the first readers hear of Mann's interest in Pound or the Master's Degree. Memoir is nothing if not the accretion of this sort of detail: where and what one studies, degrees earned—or not. Hold Still is filled with these sorts of maddening lacunae.

Mann's introduction to her husband of 40 years, Larry Mann, is equally topical. The couple, aged 19 and 22, marry quickly after a rapid courtship. Apart from noting her in-laws' disapproval, Mann says little of the courtship or marriage. Instead, she describes Larry's childhood (miserable), before moving on to those in-laws, Warren and Rose-Marie. While their story, involving a murder-suicide, a closet filled with pills, psychiatric patients, and cash, is a whopper of a tale, it ultimately has little to do with Mann. In the midst of recounting this sordid mess, Mann makes passing reference to a junior year spent abroad, newlywed, "broke and lonely", "from Great Britain to Greece".

Larry Mann's adult-onset Muscular Dystrophy is afforded the same glancing treatment. This once physically imposing man—Mann met him when her then-boyfriend brought his "strong buddy" to help re-site rocks tossed in a hurricane—becomes the willing photographic subject of "Proud Flesh". Nothing else is said of Muscular Dystrophy; readers can only wonder how the disease has impacted their daily lives, concerned their children, or affected Larry Mann's mobility. Such serious illness may be grounds for art, but it's also cause for grief and terrible loss, particularly in what clearly is a loving marriage.

The section on GeeGee, family housekeeper and caregiver, required agonizing soul-searching on Mann's part. She looks unflinchingly not only at Southern race dynamics but at her own family's place within those difficult workings. After putting in a 12 hour workday at the Mann residence, GeeGee took in ironing to earn extra money. By shouldering this massive workload, the widowed GeeGee put six children through out-of-state boarding schools and then college. Now, decades later, Mann wonders how and where a black woman without a car bought groceries in the segregated South. Where did she purchase her uniforms? Shoes for her painful feet? Who cared for her children when they fell ill?

"What were any of us thinking? Why did we never ask the questions? That's the mystery of it—our blindness and our silence. "

Mann funnels her troubled relationship to race in photographs of black men, many appearing in these pages. These finally, admit to some personal pain and a commendable reservoir of courage. And they demonstrate why Mann is at her artistic best behind the camera.

In a society where relentless exposure has become the norm, the public has wrongly come to expect athletes, artists, and politicians to share the most personal of details. Yet the decision to write a book and call it a memoir suggests a tacit agreement to disclose at least some personal information: the trajectory of an artistic life. In the case of our finest photographers, some discussion of equipment in and out of the darkroom is most welcome. So, too, is dealing with the challenges of domesticity, childrearing, and artmaking, and coping with serious illness midlife.

These are topics people discuss in memoirs, for these are the events that shape lives. This is not to suggest the need to know the contents of Sally Mann's cupboards. Nor do I presume to tell her what to write; rather, how wonderful it would have been to learn what makes this fascinating woman tick.

Instead, we get an encounter that took place while shooting "Body Farm", a series looking at human decomposition (Body Farm is also the name of the research facility at the University of Tennessee, where Mann was shooting). Two distraught men bring in a friend who has died unexpectedly. Weeping, the men carry the man to his final resting spot, making futile efforts to cover his nakedness. As Mann and a graduate student help carry the deceased, "The cloth pulled away and revealed a handsome phallus nested in pale pubic hair as the two men dragged the lower limbs out of the family minivan."

I didn't need to know that.


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