Before reading Hold Still, my knowledge of Sally Mann was based on the controversies I had heard about the intimate portraits she had made of her children, often nude, and whether they were exploitative. I had not even seen them.
So, I was cautiously curious when my friend lent my a copy of the book.
What a surprise! I found it incredibly illuminating. Mann has written a wonderfully weird and wildly playful memoir about her life and that of her family in the South. Her narrative—generously illustrated by her black and white images of landscape and family—weaves a dynamic story. I was also surprised by her lyrical prose. Turns out, she was first a writer:
Writing came first. I was frequently the poet on duty when the Muse of Verse, likely distracted by other errands, released some of her weaker lines, but that didn’t stop my passion for it. Beginning in that first year at Putney, I could be found way after lights-out, crouched in the closet earnestly composing long, verbally dense poetic meditations, almost always in some way relating to the South. (33)
Then she discovered photography:
Remember how difficult it was for me up there at Putney? The penetrating nostalgia and longing I felt for the farm, the love paeans I wrote about it? “A Summer Passing” was one of them, written for an English assignment from Ray Goodlatte. It was meant to be a “rendering,” which I gather from Ray’s red notations throughout the first draft is a form of writing allowing only objective absolutes, no metaphor, no ambiguity, just the facts, ma’m. Not exactly my strong suit.
I couldn’t be expected to render my passion for the farm in such spare language, especially this particular part, the upper fields. I wrote about those velvety undulations over and over again, even while on the beaches of Paros in 1972, when I should have been having the time of my life. It’s hard to imagine, but there I was, looking out at the wine-dark and paining for them.
. . . Where all my life
By the one river
The upper field. . .
The one place
This has become
And all desire
And if I couldn’t do justice with words and certainly not the “just the facts, ma’m” kind, I tried with my camera, composing silver poems of tone and undertow, the imagery saturated still with the words of authors I read in my teenage years–Faulkner, Whitman, Merwin, and Rilke. Many of my (poem-)photographs would sing these words, heady with beauty, ponderous with loss, right back to them.
The visual-verbal love song tune up in earnest for me on a late morning in July 1992 when I took the first serious southern landscape, a day in which the heat was exactly as I described it in “A Summer Passing.” (208)
And we are the richer for it.