Ellen Boughn reviews ‘HOLD STILL’, the photo memoir of the summer, if not the year.
I wasn’t particularly interested in reading Sally Mann’s autobiography, Hold Still, but took it up a few weeks after my husband bought it for me as a surprise. I began the book more out of a sense of guilt about not relishing his gift more than anything else
Surprise: The last paragraphs of the prologue grabbed my interest immediately. Addressing what Mann thought she might find in an attic full of family history that is the basis of one thread that runs through the story, she wrote:
“I will confess that in the interest of narrative 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 a prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder.
If any of this stuff lay hidden in my family history, I had the distinct sense I’d find it in those twine-bound boxes in the attic. And I did: all of it and more.”
At this early point in the reading of the book, I turned to Amazon and enthusiastically ordered the book for a friend that I thought would love it. Several times as I continued through Mann’s writing, I regretted the gift as the book disappointed more than it promised in those early phrases. Mann clearly needed a better editor.
Photographs and other illustrations abound, as one would expect in a photographer’s memoir. One disappointment is that their reproduction is severely flawed. Not only are Mann’s well known photographs presented as muddy examples of their former selves, the personal family snapshots by Mann and others don’t fair much better. Photographic professionals will no doubt share my frustration. However, having a visual narrative of the writer’s life no matter how flawed contributes understanding Mann and her work.
Sally Mann, the child, hated clothes. It was an ordeal for her parents to get her dressed. She preferred nudity or only underpants. This fact adds a clue to Mann’s collection of photographs of her nude children and the subsequent publishing in 1992 of those photos in the book, Immediate Family.
The scandal that resulted from the publishing of the book both surprised and frightened Mann. She details how she couldn’t understand why the photos alarmed so many and reveals that she might have exposed her children to prurient interests. Indeed a stalker followed Mann’s life for some time.
Although there are the predictable stories of how some of her most famous photographs came to be, there isn’t an over abundance of technical data. In the same genre of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Sally Mann probes the very idea of photography and how it affects memory and personal history.
Like Mann’s children, my life from birth until I walked off the set permanently at 12, was documented by my father in stills and motion. The ever-growing production was shown in full every holiday until I couldn’t remember what was real and what was from the Boughn family archives. Today I seem to remember my first crawl but how could I? It’s not memory but photography that has given me a picture in my mind of pudgy little Ellen creeping along the carpet in Dad’s film
Mann writes, “Before the invention of photography, significant moments in the flow of our lives would be like rocks placed in a stream: impediments that demonstrated but didn’t diminish the volume of the flow and around which accrued the debris of memory, rich in sight, smell taste and sound…when we outsource that work to the camera, our ability to remember is diminished and what memories we have are impoverished.”