An Artist’s Life

How Photographer Sally Mann Found the Light

America’s famous photographer of the Deep South and of family life looks back in a funny, profound, poetic new memoir.

05.13.15 9:20 AM ET

The photographer Sally Mann has lived nearly all of her 64 years in Lexington, Va., and judging by the evidence, she has been paying close attention to everyone and everything around her for almost every split second of her waking life. As an artist, a wife, and a mother—and sometimes all at once—she has gazed honestly, lovingly, discerningly at her family and her homeland, and she has kept watch with astonishing consistency.

In Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs, she writes about her first day of taking photographs in 1969 when her father gave her his old Leica: “I did what I still do to this day: I headed out into the Rockbridge County countryside to find the good light.”

Sally’s first horses, Khalifa and Fleet, in the late 1960s.

Elizabeth Evans Munger, Sally’s mother

Moreover, on that first day with a camera in her hands, “I shot many of the same things I still focus on today: the landscape of the rural South, with its keen ache of loss and memory, relationships between people, the human form, and the ineffable beauty of decrepitude, of evanescence, of mortality.”

Hold Still is a beautiful book, often profound and frequently poetic, but it’s real beauty is found in the ease with which Mann moves from the poetic to the comic, often in the same sentence, and the way profundity gives way to doubt or the frank admission of shortcoming. Put another way, reading this book is like watching a superior, quicksilver mind at work, or sitting on a porch at dusk, listening to a particularly beguiling voice.

That voice on the page never seems contrived or labored over. It’s utterly relaxed and easygoing, almost as if the book wrote itself. But as anyone who has ever labored over a book about their past or their families will tell you, there’s nothing easygoing about any of that. Mann just hides the sweat better than most.

The book began when she was invited to deliver the Massey Lectures at Harvard in 2011. Expanding those lectures into Hold Still, she crafted a narrative built of words and pictures that each deepen and amplify the effect of the other. She writes about her own life and the lives of her parents, a country doctor and a bookseller, and about the time and place that forged their lives into one: the American South.

Little Brown and Company

She also writes about what it means to be a woman and an artist and how those two things inform one another. And, as you might expect, she writes frankly and at some length—and with a completely justifiable weariness and irritation—about the controversy that erupted in 1992 after she published Immediate Family, a book of photographs chronicling and examining the lives of her three children. Because she dared to make images that called into question almost all our easy assumptions about the innocence of childhood—and more specifically because she had the further temerity to sometimes photograph her children naked as they played and swam on the family farm—she was pilloried by conservatives who called her out as a bad mother and even a child pornographer.

She insists, as she has always insisted, that her kids were her collaborators, and the proof is in the photographs: she includes all the false starts that led up to a final successful shot of her son, Emmitt, wading in the river, and it’s clear that the picture would not exist were not both son and mother equally committed and intent upon getting that one right image.

“Children cannot be forced to make pictures like these: mine gave them to me,” she writes. “Every picture represent a gesture of such generosity and faith that I, in turn, felt obliged to repay them by making the best, most enduring images I could.”

The word fearless gets thrown around a lot when people talk about daring artists, but it fits Mann as a photographer and now as a writer. She never turns away from the queasy, messy parts of childhood, nor does she blink in the face of death. This is, after all, a woman who for days on end took her camera into the government-run Body Farm in Tennessee and there photographed the corpses whose decomposition is being studied and tabulated as they decay into the earth.

Nor does she shy away from the quicksand territory of race, which she gets into it by audaciously writing about that most-charged subject: the black housekeeper.

“Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them … Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me. I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.”

A cynic might question her conclusion, but only a fool would doubt her sincerity or question her honesty, especially when she flays herself for failing to ask so many crucial questions about this woman who helped rear her: when did a woman who worked six days a week find time to go to the grocery store? How did she eat or go to the bathroom while accompanying the family on trips through the Jim Crow South? The obliviousness of white people in general and her own in particular get a thorough hiding in Hold Still.

Generous, enlightening, thought-provoking, often dark but more often funny enough to make you laugh out loud, Hold Still is a book to hold on to for dear life, because this is one of those books that if you loan it out, you’ll never see it again.

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Last week Mann sat down at her kitchen table and talked to The Daily Beast about her book.

Did the approach change while writing?

No, it didn’t. I did become a better writer. It sprang from the idea of giving a slide show. And I used some of the language from my old slide shows, and I sort of started that way and everything was sort of unexplored. So what was pithy and a one-liner right before you click the button for the next slide had to be expanded into a whole paragraph. So that was interesting. I would look at what I had I said in these slide shows and ask, what was that really about? And that’s how I started. I would take that first little pithy, summarizing line and just start writing about it, using it as the first line. Just like Hemingway and A Moveable Feast—just write the one true sentence that you know and leave out all the scrollwork, except I didn’t leave the scrollwork out.

Did anything surprise you as you went along?

You mean besides how hard it was?

Well, did anything pop up that you wouldn’t have remembered if you hadn’t been writing, however inconsequential?

You mean like the scrap of a dream? I did have a few of those, and like dreams they were very vivid. Like remembering pulling up the chunks of asphalt from the road when I was a kid and chewing it. It was just delicious. Yeah, that sort of stuff started coming back, the remembering, the climbing out of my window and riding the horse at night. Yeah, stuff like that. So yeah, I guess words did open up those lost channels in the brain a little bit.

Sally Mann

Liz Liguori

In the book you talk about how photography blocks memory, or replaces memory with the photograph.

Yeah, and writing may actually open memory up. And I will concede that sometimes those photographs are the only way I know that that moment actually happened. So I have to be grateful for those.

Do you want to do this again? Do you want to write more?

Hmm, I don’t think so. I do miss it, I miss the intensity of it. I wouldn’t have thought that because I was never so relieved and happy as when I thought the book was done. But it was such a powerful experience—the emotional stuff, and then the crafting, the craft aspect. I just remember drifting away. I was so absorbed by it. I would get up from the dinner table and go write a note down, or go look for something.

But making pictures doesn’t do the same thing for you? You can come and go, live in the present or whatever we call it?

Yeah, I can, because when you’re taking a picture, it’s all done right then. I mean, don’t get between me and a really good picture in the darkroom, because then I want to go straight to the darkroom and develop it. But once that’s done, I’m fine. I’m not haunted by it in the way that I was haunted by that book.

The family has been obviously complicit in the photographs. Was it that way with the book or was it more just you and the page?

Well, it depends on what family you’re talking about. My immediate family is not really in the book. And I did that very deliberately. I don’t want to talk about my children, my living, present-day children, that’s just not what this is about, although everyone is clamoring for the answer to that question—how did those art-abused children turn out? I mean, if they want to answer that question, that’s fine, but that’s not for me to answer. And that’s always been true. People would ask me when I was taking the pictures, and I’d say, well, you ought to ask them.

When you were asked to give the Massey lectures at Harvard, and the topics were completely up to you, you could have just gotten up there and talked about photography, or just your photography.

And that’s what I did.

But they’re also very personal. There’s nothing abstract about it. It’s all grounded in experience.

That’s just all I know to do. I couldn’t be Susan Sontag. I’m not very good with abstract thought. I always just take to the emotional core of me.

So the shape of the thing was almost preordained in a way?

Yes. Once I said yes, and it took me forever to say yes, I knew—I didn’t know how extensive it would become, and how it would take over my life—but I knew pretty much exactly what I was going to do. Because there’s only one thing I can do, which is this excruciating honesty. Maybe I’m making up for all my deceitful teenage years.

But even now there’s a sense of rebellion in what you do, given where you live—growing up in the South, there’s one thing you were taught never to do and that was being personal in public. But there’s an intimacy in almost everything you do.

Right. It makes Southerners uncomfortable. And that whole thing is belied by the fact that I close the farm gate and I never see anybody. Weeks go by and I don’t talk to another living soul. And yet all this stuff has been dumped out there. The same thing happened with Immediate Family—and I really don’t want to talk about Immediate Family—but it made people feel like they knew me and the kids. And to a certain extent, they will know me when they read Hold Still. I get a lot of mail from people, and I got one yesterday: My birthday is the same as yours! That kind of stuff. We’re best friends!

There’s more than one passage in the book where you say that these images of the children are photographs of the children, they’re not the children. But maybe you’re giving most people more credit than they deserve to assume they can make that distinction. Most people do not make that distinction.

No, they don’t. But anyone who’s worked in photography knows the inherent mendacity. A 30th of a second, a sliver out of time.

Can you find an overlap in the pleasures of photography and writing?

Yes. They’re so fleeting but in both there is that raptus of inspiration. Fleeting and really hard to hold onto, and you certainly can’t ask for it, but it happens with both, and it’s exactly the same feeling. It’s just this elevated, ecstatic moment where all of a sudden all the words just line up on the page. Or the picture is just right there in front of you and you don’t fuck it up. Well, I do fuck it up 90 percent of the time, but you do get that raptus anyway.

Have you ever tried to work outside the South?

Yeah, Mexico, but Mexico kind of qualifies as the South. It’s all about the light. It’s the light and the air, and you will just know it. There’s nothing like it. I taught up in Maine a couple of times and wasn’t able to take a single picture. All that blue sky! Ugh. Sparkling clear air, just terrible. I couldn’t do it.

How crucial is self-doubt to what you do?

I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if it’s worked for me or against me. I don’t know if I would have written a better book or taken better pictures if I was not so profoundly self-doubting. I don’t know. Think of what I might have done if I didn’t have this conviction that I wasn’t as good as … almost anybody, as an ant crawling across the floor. People don’t believe me. They say, But you’re Sally Mann. I don’t believe that whole fame thing, that celebrity thing. It doesn’t make sense to me. But that’s because I live here and when I talk to people, I’m Larry Mann’s wife. Most people around here don’t have any idea what I do. So there’s that. I’m not in that fame bubble.

But I don’t know about the self-doubt. I know it’s a motivator. But what if I hadn’t had it? What if I’d been confidant my whole life? I’m just not sure. Everything I’ve done was done in the most profound slough of self-doubt. There’s no question but that it has formed me completely. I don’t know what I would have without it. Maybe better! You do see those people, artists and writers like Jonathan Franzen, who can go on ‘Fresh Air’ and talk just as brilliantly as they write, who can do everything, who never make a misstep.

How much has your work changed who you are?

I guess all the work affected me differently. The family pictures kicked me around a bit. The landscapes, that was a wonderful experience, I loved it. But there’s no question that every time work would go out in the world, the course of my life would change. That I didn’t expect, but that’s because I never even thought anyone would look at it! Wow, you mean you sold more than 2,500 copies of Immediate Family? Then you have to jag to the right to accommodate that new reality. And it’s been that way ever since.

You seem to prefer working on projects—the family, the Civil War battlefields, now portraits of black men and black churches. Have you ever started work on a project that petered out?

Yeah, I have. But I’m so terrier like that I think there must be some germ of something in it. And with the work I’m doing now, I’m making the pictures to try and say something, as opposed to trying to save a memory or save a person. I’m asking the pictures to be in service to a concept, an idea, which makes it really hard. I so remember the halcyon days of just taking the camera out in the car and driving around and if I saw something nice, setting it up and taking a picture. I did it just for fun, like Garry Winogrand said, to see what it would look like photographed. Those were great, great days, and those days are almost over now. Some days still I go down to the studio, and I have these abstracts where I just take pictures of objects on a table, just simple still lives, just for no reason whatsoever. They don’t say anything about anything. They just look good. But I do that less and less.

I keep lists of things, and some of them are big lifelong lists, and I’ll look at them about once a year to see if I’ve gotten something done, and right now at the top of my list is Take More Pictures With the Leica, I just want to pick up that Leica and take pictures for the hell of it. It would be so freeing, I think. But what a neurotic I am. You shouldn’t have to tell yourself to have fun. You shouldn’t have to tell yourself to be an adventurous, risk-taking artist. What’s wrong with me? But you know this phenomenon that’s oppressing us now: I’m 64. I don’t have time to just fuck around. If I have something to say, I’m going to have to work really hard to get it out there. To some extent the fun has gone out of it. No, not the fun, but it’s all challenging now.

You’ve always worked with a big bellows camera and more recently with wet plate photography straight out of the 19th century. Are you one of those photographers who so distrust the ease of taking a picture with a modern camera that you connive to put roadblocks in your own path?

I absolutely do that. I sort of address that in the book where I say it’s easier for me to take a picture in an airplane bathroom than when I have 10,000 acres of Versailles and it’s all gorgeous. That always throws me for a loop. I like limitations. I like, for example, only having one lens. Someone let me play with his Canon that had a zoom lens. I was just flummoxed aesthetically—so many possibilities! Yeah, don’t like possibilities. I need restrictions, I need a handicap.

Implicit in all that though is that is still fun for you.

Yeah, it is. And the weird thing is that the digital thing—being able to work in the computer on images—is fun now, too.

How much of the book, especially the sections about your father, is an act of retrieval. There’s a real sense of longing in those sections.

It’s not so much longing for my father because he was inaccessible when I had the chance. Where the longing really is, is in the sections about my mother. What longing there is regarding my father is for the person he could have been and wasn’t. And the same with my mother, but for a different reason. Daddy could have been the person he should have been, he could have been an artist. He was a privileged man. He could have done anything he wanted. And he chose medicine, and I don’t know why. As for the inaccessibility, I don’t think he was emotionally closed off, I just think he was a man of his time, it was the era where you didn’t really show it. No, I’m talking about his life of the mind, the intellect, and art in particular. I don’t know if he could have been a good artist or not. I sort of think he couldn’t because even when he did stuff he didn’t do all that well. But I think he could have been a writer, or a thinker. I think he could have been a writer about art. I think he could have enjoyed it just so much more than what he ended up doing. That was a revelation. I didn’t know that about him before I opened up those boxes in the attic. I knew he loved art, I just didn’t know how much he loved art. You go through those notebooks when he was traveling as a teenager and a young man, and the way he writes about art and his passion for it, I mean, my god! Much more than I. He would not miss a single work of art in any museum he visited. He’d go back day after day after day, and he was a kid!

But don’t you have to factor in the place? Especially then in the South there was little or no outside encouragement to be an artist.

I always wonder why he didn’t get out of the South. He was such an intellectual. But he wanted to live in New Orleans. And Mama wanted to live in Boston. So they split the difference and picked Lexington. Why he didn’t want to live in Boston I don’t know. They had a whole list of things they were looking for in a place. They wanted a university town, and they wanted mountains. And there were smart people here, and artists, but writ small, nobody really making it in the art world.

But you were saying that the big revelation in writing the book was about your mother.

Yeah, that was the real revelation: what a poor daughter I had been. It really pains me. I never thought this would come up and bite me in the ass. I really didn’t. I thought that I had every reason to be the person I had been with her and it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. It seemed reasonable when the nursing home called and said she was dying that I looked at my Day-Timer and said, ‘God, I’m not going to be able to get there for a day and half.’ And I didn’t get there. And now I think, what was wrong with me? It’s just been awful to face what I had to face. And partly it’s that now I am old, and I remember her at the age I am now best, and I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘Oh, your sagging skin, the fat around your waist,’ like it was some kind of personal failure. And now I have exactly that same sagging skin and that fat around my waist, and I go, ‘Oh Mom, I’m so sorry.’ So, it’s really hard to holler back into the past and say, you should be satisfied now, I get it.

And I admit it has been rather great to hear my children complain about something I used to complain about, and they would roll their eyes, and now they’ve come around—the cycle of reciprocity, or something.

What are you working on now?

Those pictures of black men. I’m still ticking along on those. And I’ve got a huge body of work on Larry, those pictures I call Marital Trust. I haven’t showed them to many people.

Are you happy with the book?

I’ll have to read it. But yeah, I think I am.

The book does best what I ask most from books, which is that it allows you to keep company with a voice on the page. If I like that voice, I’ll stick it out. And here that voice comes through.

That’s what everybody said. I figured pretty early that it was more important that my voice came through rather than it sounding like a scholar or an academic or an oracle. [She finds a passage in the book] So right here I wanted to talk about the god Hermes. And all that stuff was interesting to me and I thought it made my point. But until I put this sentence in—“A trickster god, Hermes would’ve smiled on my father’s whimsies and delighted in the fantasy characters he invented to populate my childhood—Ign Ign. Great Granny Grunt … Inspector Upchuck … hollering into the spittle-splashed horn of the steering wheel.” None of that was in until the very end, and I realized that the rest of it was pretty heavy, academic-sounding stuff. I needed to put my own voice in there. And I needed to find a place to put in that story about Inspector Upchuck. But it took me that long—I was virtually at the end before I realized how important the voice was.

There’s this nice flow from subject to subject, the past and present, and back again.

Kind of like my crazy mind. It’s what plays in my head.

The title—is the general implication that you’re trying to bring all this into focus for yourself?

Or is it a command to the reader to hold still and read? And a friend of mine said it should be read as a command to me: Hold still, Sally Mann. I guess there are lots of interpretations of it. And I had this book called Still Time, and so here the implication is to hold, still. Still holding. That’s why I loved it, because it worked on all those levels.

It’s a great title.

Thank you. I sent it to my editor, because we’d been through about 150 titles, and he wrote back and said, what’s next, say cheese? And I thought, wait a minute! This is a good title. But he quickly came around and embraced it.

Say Cheese can be the sequel.

Oh, oh, bad idea!