Photography, Memory, and Work in Sally Man’s “Hold Still”

Ideas and Issues
Sally Mann

Rock Creek, Montana    Sally Mann is a reasonably well-known photographer with a determined vision of her art, her family, her land, and the South itself, that is enthrallingly captured in a combination memoir, history, and defense in her recent Hold Still. She writes almost poetically in some parts and because and in spite of it all, you can’t help liking her and wishing her Suburban would pull up in front of a house nearby, so you could walk over and say, “hi!” If I were rating it for Amazon, I’d give it five stars.

But, that’s all here and there, when it comes to some of the points she makes that are worth serious thought. One of the more interesting, especially coming from a photographer, are accusations that photographs themselves are destroying and altering memory. She might have been expected to argue that photographs are supplementing memory or even that they are substituting for memory, neither of which would have triggered much thought or debate. Instead at several different points in her book, she approaches photographs, even her own, with an attitude that seems almost openly hostile to the pictures themselves, despite it being her passionate avocation.

Inarguably, she is correct that the photographer choosing to frame a scene in a certain way and using the unmitigated power of selection from their many choices of shots in the same scene and sequence can use the final photograph produced to warp reality in the split second of that moment apart from any other context. In some ways,  her point holds more weight for her photography as art and artifice, than it succeeds as a brief the danger of a photograph supplanting or subverting memory. The disruptive rise of the smartphone, the quality of the pictures, and the ubiquity of photographs has perhaps changed the vernacular of photography and memory more than Mann wants to credit, as immersed as she is in her own vision and art. The proliferation of photographs and the cameras that take them currently are laying their own claims to be seen as facts, reality, and truth, almost making memory and perspective passé. Who cares what the police claim might be their memory, when a cellphone captures the scene of a killing in South Charleston or an athlete’s spin on a beating in an elevator in Baltimore? Photographs are now public, and memories are private, regardless of the distortion.

Mann has a horse in this race. She clearly still feels embattled over the controversy of her art involving pictures of her three young children provoked years ago, giving her a bitter taste of fifteen minutes of fame, while undoubtedly making her career as well. Hold Still has some score settling, but it’s her memoir, her right. She had me convinced about her motivations and practice as an artist until she told a story of one of her daughters objecting to a dress she would wear in public being too revealing despite having appeared nude in Mann’s family pictures, essentially saying she was an actor in the photographs but a person on the stage. For Mann’s argument to work for me, I wanted her children to say the photographs were an expression of their natural selves and spirit, even knowing from Mann’s description the pain and plodding of her staging. As children, they could be pure. Uncomfortably, on reflection, I started to be troubled that as actors, they could be porn. I want to be all for Mann, but I’m troubled now, and perhaps more in loco parentis and not as modern as I would like to claim. There are certainly no pictures of her children as adults, and that absence midst the myriad other photos also speaks volumes. I’ll have to think about this for a good while longer.

On the other hand in Mann’s defense, her feet-on-the-ground view of herself as an artist is rooted in her ability to embrace herself as a worker, and I loved that, and it makes me unabashedly her fan. Hear her on “ordinary art.”

Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art…”ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

There’s hope for us all in our dogged labors. Maybe there’s even art there!