Hold Still by Sally Mann

Great photographers aren’t usually good at talking or writing, but Sally Mann seems to be an exception. Here are some excerpts from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs:

[On meeting her future mother-in-law, a social climber in New Canaan, Connecticut] I decided right there that she was a ring-tailed yard bitch. The feeling was clearly mutual.

Report card from Putney: “She feels that Math is and always will be irrelevant to her and I think its approaching it with a ‘just one more year’ attitude.” [Maybe useful if you were considering taking the advice of math-ignorant politicians to devote yourself to STEM in order to avoid career catastrophe.]

The New York Times did a story on Mann in 1992 and forwarded to her the letters from readers. When people had to get out pen, paper, envelopes, and stamps, the volume of reader comments was apparently much smaller. It seems that there were fewer than 100 letters. The readers confidently diagnosed Mann as having been a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her father, a medical doctor, but she had repressed this memory. The armchair Freudians diagnosed her as taking pictures of her own children, sometimes naked, because she “was unconsciously working out some kind of psychic pathology in [her] photographs.”

About a third of the book is directly related to life as one of the country’s leading art photographers. The other two thirds is interesting for its portrayal of 20th century American life. For example… Department of Family Wisdom: Mann’s grandmother to Mann’s mother, circa 1927: “Marry and divorce as often as you think you have to, but don’t be any man’s mistress.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mann’s paternal great-grandfather made a fortune manufacturing cotton gins and then developing Dallas real estate. Mann describes the man’s interest in philanthropy as being unique for the time period, but this article suggests otherwise. (Note that there was no income tax or significant estate tax, so Americans kept a much larger share of what they earned.)

Mann’s father, a medical doctor, seems to have gotten her started in photography. Dad had a Leica for snapshots and a Linhof for serious portraiture. The father was also passionate about dogs, which caused some marital discord after Tara the Great Dane moved into bed and pushed Mom out. Mann’s father traveled through Europe in 1938 and, among his extensive written record of the trip, there is barely anything about the politics or military situation in Germany. With the perspective of history it is obvious to us that 1938 in Germany was a momentous time, but this wasn’t apparent to the traveler. He continued around the world on a total budget of about $1400 and his favorite spot was Angkor Wat.

“It’s Payback Time for Women” is a recent New York Times article on how women in general should be paid more than currently for their efforts as mothers (the Times neglects to mention that any American woman who wants to be paid for being a mom can do that through our child support system, which can yield a higher after-tax spending power than going to college and working in states such as California, Massachusetts, and New York). Mann’s book, however, reminds us that not all women devote themselves to their children. Mann’s father provided nearly all of the household income by working long hours as a country doctor (housecalls, 30-minute interviews with patients, surgery when necessary, etc.). Mann’s father was the nurturing parent as well, providing emotional support for the children and, eventually, the grandchildren. The hands-on parenting that the Times wants to see women get paid for was done by… woman being paid for the task: “Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman..” Mann received “unconditional love” from a widow she called “Gee-Gee” who “worked for my family until her early nineties. At age one hundred, with her hands curled into gentle claws, she died on Christmas Day, 1994.” After giving birth to the Mann clan, what did the mother do? According to Sally, she seems to have invested her time and energy into a variety of what the daughter describes as “progressive” political causes.

The book is marred to some extent by the repeated use of the phrase “dear friend.” Readers may correct me but I associate this phrase with insincere people and name-droppers, e.g., “My dear friend Hillary Clinton.” Emily Dickinson did not say “My dear friends are my estate.” Helen Keller did not say “I would rather walk with a dear friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” Aristotle did not say “What is a dear friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” Tennessee Williams didn’t say “Time doesn’t take away from dear friendship, nor does separation.” What if Cassius had said to Brutus “A dear friend should bear his dear friend’s infirmities,” in Julius Caesar?

Due to the generally feeble image presentation capabilities of the Amazon Kindle format, I recommend getting this book in hardcopy form, where it also serves as a good example of how to mix photos and text (an average of nearly one per page).

3 thoughts on “Hold Still by Sally Mann

  1. Re: armchair Freudians, I find it sadly hilarious how the intellectually feeble think they can facilely explain away people much more intelligent than themselves, not realising that the motives a person ascribes to someone else’s actions reveals more about the person doing the ascribing than the subject.

    It seems trivial to me that a person can only hope to understand someone who is less intelligent than themselves, or their equal. Given that the smartest people don’t tend to go into psychology, how much damage have these people done to that field of knowledge?

    Before I read Freud, I had never associated a cigar with a penis or towering marble columns with the female posterior. Thanks for polluting the collective consciousness with your own dirty imagination, Sigmund.

  2. Bill Clinton happened before I got around to Freud, so the cigar-penis association seemed pretty uninspired. For both men, honestly.

  3. Are “feeble picture capabilities” characteristic of the Kindle hardware that you used? of all Kindle readers? or intrinsic to the .mobi ebook format that it uses?

    I only have 1 EPUB ebook with color pictures (no DRM, size ~2mb), which however looks fine to me on iOS. So if anyone here buys this Sally Mann’s memoir in ePub, please holler if the picture quality still sucks, thank you.

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