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Monday, August 15, 2016

Lyric Southern Gothic from Photographer Sally Mann

There have always been two loves in my life, and while sometimes I favor one over the other, it’s never been clear to me which one I should commit to: art or literature. I have at various times been a painter/diarist; journalist/photographer; gallery director/blogger. The truth is that this love triangle can work -- but rarely as remarkably as in renowned photographer Sally Mann’s recent book  Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs.

In the prologue to Hold Still we find the author in the attic of her family home in rural Rockbridge County, Virginia about to cut the twine on the first of many dusty cartons of family memorabilia:

“I secretly hoped I’d find a payload of southern gothic: deceit and scandal, alcoholism domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land, abandonments, blow jobs, suicides, hidden addictions, the tragically early death of a beautiful bride, racial complications, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of the prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder. . . And I did: all of it and more.”

What follows is Mann’s personal history from childhood through her life as a wife and mother of three, her development as an artist and emergence as a nationally recognized photographer; as well as histories of the extended family around her. 

RSM SM wedding pic.JPG
Credit: Robert S. Munger, Sally’s father
An outtake from the wedding portraits taken by Sally’s father with his beloved Great Dane Tara in the background.
From Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann

The thread that runs deeply throughout Hold Still is Mann’s love of and reverence for place. The Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, the family farm and the river that runs through it, create the backdrop for her best-known photographs, those of her children.

Sally Mann, Gorjus, 1989, from Immediate Family by Sally Mann (Aperture, 2014)

Mann finds herself longing for home when she is sent away to school in Vermont:

“Through it all, trying to sort out a whole new life, I ached for home. I missed the embrace of the gentle, ancient Blue Ridge and the easy sufferance of the gracious Shenandoah Valley. I missed Virginia, where sentimentality was not a character flaw, where the elegiac, mournful mood of the magnolia twilight quickened my poetry with a passion that, even read in the hot light of the next day, was forgiven, where the kindness of strangers was expected and not just a literary trope, where memory and romance were the coin of the realm.”

We follow Mann through college, marriage and the birth of her children. We experience the excitement of her first proof sheet, her teacher’s praise and the excited letter she writes to her parents about it. We see her emerge as a critically acclaimed artist.

Credit: Kim Rushing
Sally working on her “Deep South” series in Mississippi in the late 1990s.
From Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann

We experience her pain and frustration on being labeled controversial on the national stage because of the decidedly non-prurient nude photos of her children in her book Immediate Family. We learn for the first time of a stalker who was “in love” with the children because of the photos and the toll it took on the entire family.

Mann analyzes a series of eight photographs showing the slow progression from idea to masterpiece: involving day after day of waiting for the perfect light, hauling a huge 8x10 camera and heavy tripod over slippery rocks  into the river, her son Emmet patiently posing in the cold river, until finally, on the eighth day she gets the perfect shot.

Sally Mann, Night-blooming Cereus, 1988, from Immediate Family by Sally Mann (Aperture, 2014)

We follow her as she roughs it through the deep south in her “mobile studio,” a Suburban fitted with a make-shift darkroom, stopping overnight in campgrounds or relying on the kindness of strangers for shelter.

Swamp Bones, Deep South, DS, pa 69.JPG; Credit: Sally Mann
The photo was included in Sally’s photo book “Deep South.”
From Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann

The entire volume is richly illustrated with Mann’s photography, family photos, letters and documents. The result is a perfect hybrid of illuminating, page-turning prose with a wealth of visuals -- either of which could stand on its own.


  1. Hello Jane,
    Have a good vacation. Thank you for the Mann reference.
    Elizabeth Rodriguez