Books: Sally Mann’s treasure trove of memorabilia

PHUKET: Eloquent, exasperating, pretentious, earthy, fustian, laugh-out-loud funny, Sally Mann’s Hold Still (Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2015, 482pp) – billed as ‘A Memoir with Photographs’ – is very much a mixed bag.

Unlike other photographers who roam the world, Sally Mann found her material at home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Lugging around a 100-year-old rosewood box-camera mounted on a tripod, she produced black and white photos through a complicated chemistry of ether and silver nitrate. Her subjects were her three pre-teen children as they roamed free on their secluded 360-acre family farm in a bend of the Maury River. Her collection, Immediate Family, was an immediate success de scandale since a quarter of her 60 photos showed her son and two daughters buck naked, as she herself had grown up during the 1950s.

The genesis of this memoir was a treasure trove of family memorabilia that Sally Mann unearthed in preparation for a series of lectures at Harvard.

“I will confess that in the interest of narrative I secretly hoped that I’d find a payload of southern gothic: deceit and scandal, alcoholism, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land, abandonments, blowjobs, suicides, hidden addictions, the tragically early death of a beautiful bride, racial complications… and maybe even bloody murder.

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If any of this stuff lay hidden in my family history, I had the distinct sense I’d find it in those twine-bound boxes in the attic. And I did: all of it and more.”

Her own childhood was idyllic, much of it spent roaming the Shenandoah Valley on horseback. Then she discovered boys.

“This is a chapter we’ll cut short: the bleached hair and blue eye shadow, tight pants with what little breasts I had pushing up out of my tank top above them, the many boyfriends, the precocious sexual behavior, the high school intrigues, the vulgar, sassy mouth… My poor parents.”

She was dispatched to homesick exile at Putney School in Vermont and then went on to college in Bennington, before returning home with husband Larry Mann. At the farm, she teaches herself photography, educating the reader in the process. She is moved to pose her son for eight days in the river to get exactly the right shot. She includes eight examples of shots that failed and explains why.

“It was not unusual when he announced that it was the last damn time he would model in the freezing river (by then it was October), and for some reason I titled the picture ‘The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude’, although I knew the nudity was completely beside the point.”

In contrast, sometimes a photographic masterpiece appears in an instant, as when daughter Jessie is dancing naked on a front porch table and her mother captures the luminous moment of grace, “a tenth of a second with the expansive, vertiginous properties of Nabokovian timelessness”.

Mann later travelled by herself throughout the Deep South, taking evocative landscape photos and spinning stories with earthly good humor. Once, she snuck into the grounds of a ruined planation house, despite many No Trespassing signs. Her head is buried under the camera’s cloth when she hears footsteps approach. She fears an irate owner. Instead she discovers a gentleman with a sweet Southern voice.

“He didn’t look mean or angry at all; in fact, he had a benign, lazy look of somebody who’s gotten into a sizable mess of nookie the night before.”

He proves to be one of the many kind strangers who guide her along on her journey.

The memoir ends with a complex, brilliant, loving portrait of her father, a country doctor, grandson of a philanthropist, who spent the year after medical school, 1938, motorcycling through the art centers of Europe before striking off from Egypt across Asia to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. His travel journals, with his own evocative photographs, break through the taciturn mask that he would later present to the world. Three decades later, terminally ill with brain cancer, he plotted his final departure. His suicide can only have been regarded as noble.

— James Eckardt

Thai Life
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