It’s hard to think about Sally Mann without thinking about her naked children. Her 1992 book “Immediate Family,” which featured unsettling photographs of her young kids, sometimes unclothed or in disquieting stances, put Mann at the center of a debate over the nature of art and the obligations of parenthood.
Her memoir, “Hold Still,” offers still more in the shock category, although this time the subjects stretch beyond pre-pubescent children in provocative poses. As a writer and as a photographer, Mann is admirable and vexing in equal measure. She seems to choose and compose her subjects for maximum provocation: Her own reckless youth in rural Virginia, her family’s dark past and the murder-suicide of her in-laws are among the subjects in this sprawling new book.
“I will confess,” Mann writes in the introduction, “that in the interest of narrative I secretly hoped I’d find a payload of southern gothic: deceit and scandal, alcoholism, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs.” And you can bet she found it — and then some. Mann’s book has enough sensational material for several novels and a few late-night movies you might not want your kids to watch.
For Mann, now 64, criticism and notoriety have come hand in hand with celebrity and success. Pat Robertson has condemned her work as “immoral.” Time magazine has lauded her as “America’s best photographer.” Mann’s works sell for thousands and are collected at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among other venerated institutions.
This book will spark further discussion about her artistic bravado and no-regrets stance on those photos of her children. Adding fuel is her admission here that those images may have introduced peril into her family’s life.
Loosely organized and often meandering, “Hold Still” is a sweeping tale of Mann’s coming of age, her family history, her artistic influences and choices. It is also an homage to the South, to rural Virginia in particular, where she still lives. Filled with memorabilia and (of course) photographs, the book has a surfeit of anecdotes and opinions that struggle to come together in an engaging story line.
In its best moments, “Hold Still” is thought-provoking and is certainly arresting to look at. A chapter on Mann’s in-laws — whom Man describes as social-climbing New Englanders who may have been dealing drugs and whose lives ended with gunshots — is the stuff of a Capote book.
A section about her beloved nanny, Gee-Gee, is a warm-hearted, guilt-tinged portrait of race in 1950s Virginia. “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,” Mann writes. Gee-Gee worked for Mann’s family for almost 50 years, and perhaps the most eerily touching photograph among the many in this book is the one of Mann lying next to her elderly nanny. Gee-Gee’s long hair, Mann writes, was splayed on the bed, “as straight, fine, and white as any North Carolina mill child’s.”
Mann has a gift for descriptions that are as freighted with conflicting meanings as her photographs. “Ultimate beauty,” she writes, “requires that edge of sweet decay, just as our casually possessed lives are made more precious by a whiff of the abyss.” She is forever pushing boundaries, urging us to look at and think about the ugly or the merely illicit: decaying bodies, dead animals, nudity.
Which brings us back to those beautiful, disconcerting photos of the children. They hover over this fascinating book like a vaguely creepy dream. Mann may decry that her artistic identity is forever wedded to those photos, but it is hard not to see their vital role in her life story. Mann spends almost 70 pages rehashing the debate over them, adding fodder with the revelation that for years after the publication of “Immediate Family,” the Manns were stalked.
This confession validates “critics who said I put my children at risk,” she writes. “And it will make their vengeful day when I admit now that they were in some measure correct.” And yet, when she asks herself whether she would do it all over again, her answer is unequivocal: “Yes. Yes, and yes, resoundingly, absolutely.”
As if to show she means it, Mann includes images that her children had asked her not to publish in “Immediate Family” — including a partially nude picture of her son half-clad in a Bugs Bunny costume, and a photo of her daughter called “Pissing in the Wind.” (Both children gave her permission to include them in “Hold Still.”) There are also other, more casual images of Mann and her kids: in the nude, on the toilet, vomiting. Perhaps most disturbing, there’s one of her son in a hospital bed next to a blood-soaked pillow after he had been hit by a car.
Another series of photos from a multiday shoot for “Immediate Family” shows her naked son standing in a river, “shaking with cold” while waiting for his mother to get the right shot. “Children cannot be forced to make pictures like these,” she writes. “Mine gave them to me.”
Where does the shutter stop for Mann? At her dying father. “As my father weakened with brain cancer, I tried to photograph him, in the manner of Richard Avedon or Jim Goldberg, whose work I admire,” she writes. “But I put away my camera when I began to see that photographing his loss of dignity would cause him pain.”
“Maintaining the dignity of my subjects has grown to be, over the years, an imperative in my work,” Mann explains. Some might argue that this statement doesn’t square with everything Mann shares in this book. Have a look and decide for yourself.
At 6 p.m. on May 16, Sally Mann will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
A Memoir with Photographs
By Sally Mann
Little, Brown. 482 pp. $32