Photographer Sally Mann drives with her greyhound, Honey, in the early 2000s. Michael S. Williamson/Courtesy of Michael S. Williamson

Photographer Sally Mann drives with her greyhound, Honey, in the early 2000s. Michael S. Williamson/Courtesy of Michael S. Williamson

A Memoir Through Pictures

by Jen Detlefsen

In a recent open letter to her fans, indie art darling Amanda Palmer discussed her fears of how becoming a new mother will impact her art. This is a legitimate concern, of course, but perhaps one that could be mitigated by even the most casual glance at Sally Mann's new memoir, Hold Still, a Memoir with Photographs. Over the years, Sally Mann has shown the world what it means to be a woman, a mother, a wife, a daughter and an artist; how to inhabit these roles not separately, but as one cohesive identity steeped in the sumptuous history of the south. Her photographs have captured the dizzying, poignant joy of watching a child grow into their own skin – and have fixed for posterity the anguish of watching a loved one wither away from life. With every subject, her passion and unreserved emotion infuse the wet-plate collodion images, and dare the viewer to feel, or to turn away.

Mann is known even outside the art world’s innermost circles for her controversial work depicting her children; in the early 90’s, she was catapulted into notoriety due to the nudity and precocious poses in her series Immediate Family. Her new memoir tells the story of those pictures, the subject of so much hysteria and controversy, in the context of the rapt maternal love in which they were shot. In later years, as she turned her lens away from her increasingly independent children, her work would explore the singular beauty of the other love of her life - Rockbridge County, Virginia. This memoir is as much a paean to her beloved Shenandoah as it is an examination of her own work as a photographer. Gobsmacked in love with her slice of the south since the day she was born, she believed that, like longtime friend and neighbor Cy Twombley, the greatness of her art was achieved “not in spite of the place but because of it.” She is unabashedly sentimental in her descriptions of Lexington, Virginia, sharing with the reader early poetry dedicated to the land, which only intensified in hyperbolic yearning when she was banished to a northern boarding school for unruly behavior in her teens. This unruly behavior was rendered insignificant by comparison when an appointment to deliver the Massey Lectures at Harvard in 2011 led her to examine her oftentimes shocking ancestry. She delves deep into the lives of her  fascinating forbears, and emerges with tales of heartbreak, murder-suicide, scandalous affairs and countless other makings of a southern gothic masterpiece. No aspect of her life growing up white and affluent in the south, however unflattering, goes unexamined. She agonizes over  the youthful ignorance of racial injustices that made her childhood such an idyll- and admits that no number of pictures, no matter how deeply felt, can be an adequate atonement. Throughout this book, though, the recurring theme is love - for her work, for her family, for her home- a love that fed her art, nourished her soul and sheltered her from the art world's fickle fandom. If Amanda Palmer needs reassurance that motherhood does not mean an end to art, she could do worse than to start here.

 

Jen Detlefsen is a Virginia Beach-based maker, mom and wine drinker. She is currently studying hot glass at TCC's Visual Arts Center.