Hold Still by the American photographer Sally Mann is described as a Memoir with Photographs. It tells the story of Mann’s life and the stories of her family--based on her experiences and memories and on the archive of photographs and papers in her attic. Hold Still is divided into several parts: Mann’s own story and that of her husband Larry; her mother Elizabeth Evans Munger and her family; the black woman GeGe who cared for Mann as a child; and her father Robert Munger and his family. Near the beginning, Mann writes that when she started the project, she looked into boxes of family papers was looking for “southern gothic: deceit and scandal, alcoholism, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, racial complications, dearly loved and disputed family land, abandonments, blow jobs, suicides, hidden addictions, the tragically early death of a beautiful bride, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of a prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder.” And she got it: “all of it and more.”
But Mann’s story is Southern in so many more ways than “gothic.” She was born and spent most of her life in an extraordinarily beautiful place: Lexington, Virginia, where the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains meet. More specifically, she lives in a remote house on the Maury River in the Shenandoah valley, a place that was a regular part of her life since she was a child. Mann’s life in this place is responsible for a number of traits she describes as typically Southern. (This is a part of the book that may annoy people who are not themselves from the South.) But I suggest that it is more important to think about the fact that Mann lives with “a sense of place,” and not just focus on the particular place in which she lives. The truth is that many people locate their identity strongly in a particular place—anywhere from an Italian village to New York city. However, claims about the beauty or virtues or dangers of the “South” can be suspicious to many. The “South” sometimes functions as a kind of metonymic trope for a set of assumptions, e.g., ignorant, racist, backward. But the “South”—like any other “part” of the United States is not one thing; it is multiple. (Just like the “West” is never—and was never—just one thing.) And, of course, not all people who live or lived in the South are the same kind of people.[i]
Mann is known primarily (or at least this was the case for me) because of her pictures of her children, mostly taken nude. These pictures, mostly from the 1980s, caused a huge controversy, one that was partly fueled by the appearance of Robert Mapplethorpe’s censored pictures of children around the same time. But she is also a landscape photographer. Most of her pictures are of the American South, as well as Civil War battlefields. She is known for her use of old forms of cameras and film, such as collodion plates and ambrotypes. I was not familiar with these pictures and, though they are reproduced in Hold Still, the quality of the reproduction makes them difficult to see, much less evaluate. (This seems to me a major flaw of the book.) I tried to find better quality reproductions on the internet, but most of them were very small images copyrighted to her.
The parts of Mann’s story that deal with her own life are interesting because Mann’s voice is funny and sharp. It is also interesting as a kind of portrait of the artist as a young woman, explaining her evolution as a photographer, and why she decided to take particular pictures in particular ways. There are not many books that offer this kind of narrative. The story of her mother’s family is laced with scandals Mann had not known of. The story of Gee-Gee, the black woman who raised her, is a canonical narrative of southerners of her (and my) generation: as she says “Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them.” This, says Mann, is part of the ”fundamental paradox of the South.” Mann describes her relationship with Gee-Gee in loving terms, but also admits the unexamined assumptions that that underlay that relationship. Speaking of family trips, she asks “How could I not have thought it strange that Gee-Gee never ate anything but also never had to go, never even got out of the car? How could I not have wondered, not asked?” The story of her father offers no hidden secrets, but does Mann does try as an adult to understand his fascination with death and the way his self-absorption affected his dealings with his wife and children.
Mann connects these stories of the past to her own identity, claiming at several points that attributes of her ancestors are wired into her own DNA. This, I believe, she means literally. But though it is possible (for almost all of us through lived experience) to accept a genetic family history of depression, it is more difficult to locate a gene for nostalgia for the past or for quirky behaviors. Nevertheless, one can see how a family—handing on to its children patterns of behaviors, values, flaws and everything else that makes up a person—can be, at least partly, the source of who one is now. Just as where one lives—its beauty, history, inhabitants—can anchor one’s self to its own sense and importance of place.
Hold Still shows how family stories are constructed out of the archives of family life: the papers, pictures, letters, report cards, and more that a family saves. The artifacts are by themselves meaningless. But woven together they become a narrative of a family and its individuals. That this is only one possible narrative is made manifest in the reproductions Mann includes in the book. Choosing this letter or that letter is the job of the storyteller who uses them to tie these unruly people into a family.
This month, my Louisville Book Group read Hold Still. I am sad that I missed the discussion, because this is a book I would really like to talk about. I liked the book, almost as a “guilty pleasure,” because I wasn’t always sure I should like it as much or in the ways that I did. After finishing it, I looked at the reviews and was happy to find they were almost all positive. This makes me a little more confident in my judgment. But I would still have liked to test my response within the conversation of some of the sharpest critics and best readers I know.
[i] Odd as it may seem in a blog entry, I insert an endnote here. I too grew up in the South. In my case, I was born in South Carolina and lived there until I was almost six. I also spent all my summers there until I was 14. My extended family and later my mother lived in North Carolina. And though I also lived as a child in Florida, Virginia, and as an adult in Louisiana, it is the Carolinas that anchor me to a sense of place. When I fly into Raleigh-Durham to go to the beach, I become nostalgic (though that is not quite the right word) as soon as I see the long leaf pine, more so when I see tobacco fields, and achingly so when I see old abandoned shanties. So I kind of “get it.”