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Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs Hardcover – May 12, 2015
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An Amazon Best Book of May 2015: If you have ever seen Sally Mann's photography you understand her ability to capture emotion and generate conversation. In Hold Still Mann has changed mediums but continues to deliver a strikingly rich composition. Soaked in Southern history and heritage, Mann takes us through her childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains and her life as a mother, wife, and photographer with finely-crafted insight and honest revelation. For someone who has lived in the public eye for so long, Mann is still able to deliver surprises to the stories we thought we knew through a memoir written even more beautifully than I expected. --Penny Mann
From School Library Journal
Most teens won't expect to read about a bizarre murder-suicide when first picking up this memoir. And yet there it is, part of a central narrative that tangles family, art, racism, mortality, and a beloved Southern landscape. The work is told through a masterful combination of Mann's words and photographs, both startlingly raw and lovely. Mann lived much of her life in the seclusion of rural family property; her three children enjoyed a rare freedom from clothing as they swam and played in privacy. Mann's photographs of the children in their naked and fierce beauty, included in this volume, were published in her book, Immediate Family (Aperture, 2005). Controversy followed. Mann eloquently describes this time period, depicting the timeless anguish of an artist whose expression defies society's mores. Young photographers will be fascinated by the author's frank obsession with capturing the perfect image. Her writing, beautifully enhanced by an eclectic array of borrowed quotes, works in remarkable tandem with her images. Teens who enjoy the intersection of words and images as expressed in graphic novels should appreciate this unique work. VERDICT For young adults considering a future in the arts, Mann's memoir is a visceral experience of that life's risks and triumphs.—Diane Colson, Nashville Public Library
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But while "Hold Still" is nominally a memoir, Sally Mann uses the opportunity more to analyze her life-in-progress than to display it all wrapped up with a bow on top. Most of the individual chapters would work perfectly well as freestanding essays. Some explore family history (inevitably intertwined with Southern history) while others thread their way through Sally's working process and her encounters with the so-called art world.
The writing itself is meticulously detailed and personal -- and spiked throughout with wickedly funny insights (often at her own expense). But her writing is also, above all, intelligent. Simply put, Sally Mann brings a ton of intellectual firepower to bear upon a huge range of subject matter. Taken as a whole, it's wild ride (!) through the perils and rewards of living a rich and varied life.
Her family history rivals anything I've ever read before, from spellbinding tales of adverturers to criminals. Among her ancestors she has billionaires (in today's dollars), murderers, polyamourous relationships, drug dealers, inventors, artists, and writers. Branches of her family go back to Colonial America in 1630.
She is a deeply Southern woman, bound to the land she comes from, yet conflicted by Confederate history. She writes that, like many affluent Southern children, she was essentially raised by a Black woman, who worked for her family for 50 years. In this book she tries to come to terms with the Southern mentality and the legacy of slavery, as well as her own parents' indifference towards child rearing.
Recounting the bizarre stories would take me as long as it took to read the book. There are remarkable anecdotes on virtually every page of it, some of it almost unbelievable. Manhandling a dead body to the top of a hill to its repose at the Body Farm comes to mind, as does the recounting of her in-laws descent from high social standing to drug dealing and, finally, murder/suicide. Her own father's lifelong obsession with death, culminating in his suicide, seems to be a harbinger of Mann's own preoccupation with death and dead bodies. Her mother's lifelong distance and aloofness was offset by her relationship with the Black housekeeper.
Sally Mann is one of the most interesting and creative personalities of the last century, in my opinion, stubbornly carrying out whatever odd and difficult project she conceives of. Her view of herself and her life is fierce, honest, and uncompromising. She never flinches from showing herself as she is, and never hides her failures and insecurities from us.
This is more than a memoir of a photographer. In many ways, it is the story of the South. I've never understood this part of the Country until seeing inside of her mind through her memories, which she rigorously confirmed with her family, friends, and various documents she researched. It wasn't enough that she "remembered". She made sure that what she remembered was what really happened.
Oddly enough, for an artist who has been called the preeminent photographer of her generation, her undergraduate and Masters degrees are in creative writing. Her book is brilliantly written. There is not a single dry sentence in it. Reading this book was one of the highlights of my reading year, and it will surely be one of yours.
I bought the hardback version of the book because I thought I would have some of her photography to enjoy along with the prose. Sadly the publishers chose to print the photographs not on high quality glossy sheets, but straight on to the cream colored pages. They lack definition and they are washed out. They don't do any justice to this fine photographer's life and work. It's a pity they were cheap in producing this work.
What follows are forays into the many boxes of letters, documents, kids' art, yellowed photographs, kept in the family attic. The rest of the book is a memoir of her youth, her children, her experience of growing up in the South, having a black nanny, her love of horses, her motley crew of relatives.
I found this to be a thorough and interesting memoir. As for the photos of her nude children, I felt she "doeth protest too much" about the criticisms.