“Hold Still”: Sally Mann’s memoirs of an older Virginia (and the rest of the South) in pictures and words.

About Hold Still and reading a “memoir with photographs”

I had no idea who Sally Mann was when I started this book, but I was intrigued by the idea of “A Memoir with Photographs.”  The nice thing about Hold Still is that it is really well written…by a photographer.  Actually, she has also studied creative writing, but she is primarily a photographer. 

As a cross between an art book, or “coffee table” books and a book “meant for reading”, the volume is beautifully produced. If you are one of those people who don’t like e-books because you like the feel and smell of a paper book, this one is going to be a treat.

It is available in a kindle version, but this is one to get in paper if at all possible. You are definitely going to miss a lot if you try to read it on a “Paperwhite” kindle because her photographs are often deliberately murky, and the smaller kindle (which I usually prefer) is not going reproduce them in a useful manner. At the very least, you need to use a Kindle Fire or other full-option tablet, but really, try to get it in paper. I think you are going miss a lot with the distortion of the layout as well as imagery in electronic form.

Who says that picture books are only for the young? 

The nice thing about the text of this book is that it is very episodic in nature, so you can easily read only part of this book, or read it in installments with long gaps, which is good because it’s long and fairly dense. 

 It also covers a broad scope, so in that sense, some of you might be more interested in some parts of the story than others.  As a Virginian, I was particularly interested in the sections on Mann’s childhood and her life in the country outside of Lexington, Virginia, which you may know as the home of Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.  She delves into the personal histories of her family members, she wrestles with her memories of her childhood and the perspectives of those close to her, which includes Black domestic workers with whom she was close, but of course were forced into their jobs and were treated a certain way by the discriminatory Jim Crow laws in effect at the time. She also discusses in detail some of her projects, including Southern landscapes, her controversial photographs of her children and of dead bodies.

Basically, Sally Mann takes the tradition of Southern Gothic literature into art photography. 

The tricky part about reading this book is that it’s not completely clear when one topic ends and another one begins. Also, I feel I should give you fair warning about some sections of the books you might find problematic.   

The first section in the book is called “Family Ties: The Importance of Place”.  All is well in the first 6 sections, which deal with Mann’s childhood and her farm, but suddenly in chapter 7, the topic switches to her photographs of her family, which continues into chapter 8.  Now, if I had known Mann’s work as a photographer before reading this book, I probably would have started the book wanting to read about the territory covered in these chapters, because apparently it was a minor scandal (that I missed).  But I didn’t.

What I found in these two chapters was a description and rationale for the nude photographs that she published of her children.  And since this book is illustrated, the photographs are there as well.  I read her rationale with interest, but I am an educator, and I have had extensive training in protecting children from predators.  And the whole time I was reading this book, I was well aware that these photos could be considered a problem for anyone working in a school, if they were found in his/her possession.   

To be fair, as Mann points out, these photographs were published in art magazines before the advent of the Internet, so none of us could have predicted how they would be seen in the future, and the photos are published now with the consent of her children, who are now adults. 

To me, there is a conflict of interest between Mann’s being the children’s parent, the one usually responsible for deciding how a minor’s image can be used, and their photographer.  We all know that it’s not hard to get children to agree to something by their parents, and it’s not fair that a third party was not involved to act on the children’s behalf in this case.  That’s how I see it. 

After writing the above paragraphs, I read the profile of Sally Mann on Wikipedia, which discusses the steps Mann took at the time to ensure the safety of her children. While I disagree with her decision myself, I suggest you read the article yourself and decide. The article from the New York Times Book Review that is quoted is not available online without a subscription. 

If this issue bothers you, you may not want to read this book, or you may want to skip these chapters. 

There are other issues, especially related to her analysis of race relations in Virginia at this time, that also might make you uncomfortable or even enrage you.  I’m kind of glad that people have started to discuss the whole story of this time period.  Partly because the story needs to be told while people are still alive to tell it, and partly because I found the whole thing very confusing as a child, and I’m glad to finally be able to sort the whole thing out. I grew up about 10 years after Mann.  My memory starts right after school segregation ended in Virginia (Virginia was one of the last). At the time, all I knew is that some Black people were angry and that I shouldn’t talk about it because we all needed to get along. 

I am not a photographer, and I’m not especially interested in photography, but I did enjoy reading Mann’s description of her art and her profession, especially how she managed certain photographs.  I am also grateful for the technology that allows the photographs to be inserted right into the paragraphs, no question!


Note: Some of the videos and links in this article contain some of Sally Mann’s controversial photography of her young children without clothes. Please proceed with caution. These photographs are considered art photography, and she did follow proper procedure before publishing them. Further explanation in the discussion below. Said children are now adults, and do not object to the photos; however, you could be in an awkward position if you open the links at work or in a public place.

More about Sally Mann and her work

View Sally Mann’s professional web page here.

Enjoy this article, “The Color of Humanity Sally Mann’s South” written by Hilton Als, the New Yorker’s Theatre Critic (at the time of publication in 2018) with Sally Mann’s photography.

It is a beautifully written article, and I have moved Hilton Als’ book, White Girls, to the top of my TBR pile. Look for it on The Lois Level in the near future!

Listen to Sally Mann reading humorous excerpts about her childhood from Hold Still at the Historic Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA (home of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia). Mostly, it’s a listen, but there are illustrative photographs on the clip.

Free Resource

This fascinating clip below documents Mann’s photography session with dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones along with his dance in response to his time with her. The screenshot is the title card from the clip, which was created in conjunction with the book A Thousand Crossings.

If you aren’t used to this sort of thing, it might seem strange, but I like the idea of the two artists having a chance to respond to each other, especially because the photographs that Mann takes implies things that are not necessarily true about the exact person in the photo, if that makes sense.

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 12.49.54 PM.png

Free Listen

2014 Interview with Sally Mann and Charlie Rose at the 92nd Street Y in NYC.

Although there is video, you don’t need to watch…suitable for listening in the car!

This trailer for the PBS television show Art in the 21st Century features Sally Mann. In the United States, you can watch the entire series here. Worldwide viewers can possibly watch on Youtube.

More from The Lois Level

Ellen Gilchrist’s short story collection Acts of God and more about Southern Gothic

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: More about being a Black American and books as art objects

Cover Photo Credit

Ted Bowman, October 13, 2013. Lexington, VA.