Controversial Photographer Sally Mann’s “Hold Still” is a Rare Gift – an All Encompassing Read.

Peppered with reproductions of Mann’s artistic photographs, portraits and letters, the narrative in Hold Still works on a visceral and emotional level. Mann shares her personal history, details her intellectual and artistic journey, and tells the blood splattered history of her extended family. She has an impressively fluid, reflective voice which mixes poetry into her learned language.

“I don’t know if I’m at all that different from other people, but for me great artistic leaps forward are not accompanied by thunderclaps or recognition. In truth, they aren’t even usually great leaps. They are tentative toe testings accompanied by an ever-present whisper of doubt.”

Arguably the strongest segment of the book is when Mann discusses the sometimes polarizing opinion of her work. In 1992, Mann’s book, Immediate Family, exploded in news, religious and art forums after it was labelled with the words like “exploitative” and “perverse.” The photographs, taken over several years, feature her children as they sleep and play; and they are nude in most photos. Mann defends her right to take and share the photos while recognizing that the issue of consent and children becomes slippery as they age.

“Many people expressed opinion, usually in earnest good faith but sometimes with rancor, about the pictures: my right to take them, especially my right as a mother, my state of emotional health, the implications for my children, and the picture’s effects on the viewer. I was blindsided by the controversy, protected, I thought, by my relative obscurity and geographic isolation, and was initially unprepared to respond to it in any cogent way.”

The ethical debate on Mann’s portraits of her kids remains open. The unflagging passion and intelligence that she brings to her arguments make for a stimulating debate. The marriage of American morality to Christian ideals, America’s closed attitude towards innocent nudity and the role of mother as artist and children’s consent all play components in the discussion.

Sally Mann

One thing that is not debated is the craftsmanship of Mann’s art. She discusses in detail the painstaking work entailed in producing a photograph and she provides visual examples for us novices. She uses a multitude of different cameras to produce her work, from handheld to massive. One she describes must be transported in trucks. She chooses locations, equipment and development techniques carefully and may re-take a picture hundreds of times before coming up with her ideal image. Her attention to and respect for her craft is extensive and her reputation among art critics and collectors is well deserved.

Mann discusses race in several uncomfortably rendered sections of the book. Her birth in the American South when segregation and servitude were still commonplace has muddled her emotions and ideas about race relations. She discusses her connection with her nanny, Gee-Gee, who was heart-breakingly left in the car on stops on family road trips. Mann attempts to come to terms with her racially confused upbringing by taking a series of photos of nude black men. There seems to be no peace in these photos for Mann and her lifelong struggle with understanding race in America.

“What were any of us thinking? Why did we never ask questions? That’s the mystery of it – our blindness and our silence.”

As if the art, her fascinating childhood and family history weren’t enough to chew upon and discuss, Mann ends with a section in which she photographs corpses decaying in a research facility known as “The Body Farm.” The photos show in graphic detail decaying, bloated and bug infested bodies. Mann’s language details what she sees in a manner that is grotesque and challenging. Why does the end of life remain largely undiscussed?

I highly recommend this artfully written and intellectually stimulating book for any fans of art, memoir or book clubs. It opens myriad opportunities for discussion and just may challenge your vocabulary. When is the last time that you read the words: sangfroid, racemes, nacreous, eidetic or quotidian? And those occur in the first 100 pages!

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Publication date: May 12, 2015
Page Count:496 p.
Publisher:Little, Brown and Company


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