I just finished a wonderful book this past week and wanted to share it. This book is a memoir by the photographer Sally Mann titled Hold Still A Memoir with Photographs. Some of you reading will be familiar with Mann. Her photography is well known, and she stirred a bit of controversy with images of her children in the early 1990s. Not the kind of controversy that Jock Sturges was unfortunate to receive because of his works, but close. No FBI searches of her studio though.
The book is a memoir in photographs and words. She dives deep into her family history, looking for clues to her own roots, and the inspirations for her artwork. She describes her journey through tattered and yellowed boxes and her secret desires for finding, “…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 the prodigal son, and maybe even a bloody murder.” She found them all, and what a tale it is.
While she researches many of her, and her husband Larry’s, family members she comes back to and spends the most time on her father, Robert S. Munger, a physician whose first love was art. He had a fascination with death, and the symbolism of the macabre. She wondered if this influenced her work as well, and the further back she dug, the clues began to give her an answer, as do many of her photographic projects.
I enjoyed reading about her discovery process into her family history and the discussion of her own photography. She described over the course of the book how it evolved from the early images of her family – mainly her children, to her beloved southern landscape, and why she was drawn to capturing specific places in the south to include Civil War battlegrounds. Her desire to capture the southern landscape in the historic wet plate collodion process was of great interest to me as I have captured many southern landscapes and I am fascinated with the antique processes of early photography.
Discussing how much she enjoys aesthetic challenges by the “limitations of the ordinary,” it was refreshing to read such a successful and well-known photographer reveal personal fears about her work. She said, “…I get a little panicked when I have before me what the comic-strip character Pogo once referred to as “insurmountable opportunities.” It is easier for me to take ten good pictures in an airplane bathroom than in the gardens at Versailles.” And, this is how she is through the whole memoir; real and honest and oftentimes scared of her own successes.
Reading her stories, I felt a familiar place, something I could relate to as we both have a love of art and antique photographic processes, southern landscapes – the South in general really, and dogs. She does love her dogs as I do. But, I admit, she almost lost me in the end upon telling the story of a dearly departed pet dog…it wasn’t until page 447 of a 482 page book, and it was enough to give me pause. I won’t be a spoiler, so you’ll have to read or ask. The book was a fast read up to this point, and then it came to a screeching halt for me, but, that’s okay; I finished and thoroughly enjoyed her journey.