Saturday, October 24, 2015

{read} Hold Still by Sally Mann


Oh, how I loved this book.

A memoir that goes back over a hundred years into a fascinating family history, a deep meditation on one's bond to land, and a treatise on working creatively while raising a family (and more importantly - becoming collaborators within a family, this is essential reading for creative parents!

Mann's intimate photographs of her family, published in the book Immediate Family,  shot her to national prominence (and infamy) in the early 90's. She photographed her children injured, naked, and in awkward positions (as well as playing, thoughtful, and engaged in life). As photographs, they definitely elicit a response from the viewer. They are beautiful and powerful and darkly capture a side of life with children that is not often talked about or even recognized. As a parent, one wonders what would prompt her to make these photographs and publish them to the world. She writes at length about her process, the children's cooperation and collaboration, the secluded and nearly feral life they led at their river cabin. It all makes sense. I do wonder (as does she) how her art would have been received in the digital age.

Most interesting to me are the photographs she took of her children when they were hurt or danger is implied. Nothing serious: stitches, imprints of bite marks, legs cadaverishly caked with mud, a child sleeping that calls to mind a 19th century death portrait, a child next to a freshly hunted deer or holding roasted squirrels.

Writing about an image of her child Jessie with a swollen face after an insect bite, Mann shares:

"As strange as it sounds, I found something comforting about this disturbing picture. Looking at the still-damp contact print, and then looking at Jessie, completely recovered and twirling around the house in her pink tutu, I realized the image inoculated me to a possible reality that I might not henceforth have to suffer. Maybe this could be an escape from the manifold terrors of child rearing, an apotropaic protection: stare them straight in the face but at a remove - on paper, in a photograph. 

With a camera, I began to take on disease and accidents of every kind, magnifying common impetigo into leprosy, skin wrinkles into whip marks, simple bruises into hemorrhagic fever. Even when a scary situation turned out benign, I replayed it for the camera with the worst possible outcome, as if to put the quietus on its ever reoccurring." 

She uses her camera to explore the darkest themes of motherhood in ways that are recognizable to most parents. The camera becomes a looking glass into futures nightmares you hope to never endure and the images take you as close to the edge before tumbling over.

The book also offers deep histories of race in the south, the unchanging landscape, marriage and illness, and death. Full of photographs and copies of letters, memos and various ephemera, the book is delightful, engaging and at times challenging to read. I highly recommend it.

This is the book to gift your book club friends, art lovers, and wild mamas. They will thank you.

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