Sally Mann Commands: Hold Still

Amrotype self-portrait by Sally Mann.
Ambrotype self-portrait by Sally Mann.

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If your photographic weapon of choice happens to be, like Sally Mann's, an unwieldy 8x10 view camera complete with 19th-century evocative black drape cloth, the spontaneity of a selfie or even a Garry Winogrand street grab is not your preferred armament. Mann’s introduction to a camera came when her father gave the 17-year-old his 35mm Leica III with a Hector lens. On returning from her 1969 spring break to the Putney School in Vermont, Mann developed her first roll of film in the school photo lab. Many of the frames were abstract studies of peeling paint, tangled vines and weathered wooden boards — predictable student subjects. In her recently published memoir, Hold Still, Mann, now 64, describes the excitement of making her first contact sheet (which is reproduced in the book along with hundreds of other illustrations).

I am absolutely frantic with … happiness and pride …. It’s all rather unbelievable and perhaps a total fluke, but really very exciting anyway. God!!

It was not a fluke, as her tightly focused and eclectic body of work has made clear in dozens of exhibitions and monographs since then. Like many “art” photographers who do not hire out for commercial work, Mann devotes years to pursuing and developing a single theme or idea. One of the most recent is portraiture of her husband of more than 40 years, Larry, as he struggles with the withering of his body from muscular dystrophy; this is documented in the 2012 book Proud Flesh. Six years earlier, she made poetic, even romantic studies of old tress and decrepit ante-bellum houses in Deep South. A video with slow dissolves between images creates an ever-shifting pentimento of kudzu and moss, as well as intentional collodion stains and drips that highlight the fragility of the demanding mid-19th century process. Mann may regard this YouTube morphing as a distortion of her work, but the technique does capture the sense of melancholy and death that stalks this mythic landscape.

Mann’s book from 2003, What Remains, is in part a photo essay about decaying human bodies that were left exposed to nature in a University of Tennessee study plot called the “Body Farm.” The book was initially inspired by the death of Mann’s father, Robert S. Munger, M.D., who committed suicide by an overdose of 30 outdated Seconals. The ghost of Munger haunts Mann’s book, and the themes of death and decay pervade her artistic life. Her father was a rural general practitioner whom she compares to the subject of Eugene Smith’s iconic Life magazine photo essay, “Country Doctor.” Munger’s life embodied a never fully resolved tug-of-war among science and medicine, his quotidian public life, and an abiding love for the arts, especially music, literature and painting. As a young man, he spent a Wanderjahr traveling on a motorcycle, drinking in European and Asian culture. Often photographed wearing the same suit and tie, it was his badge of entry into many elite cultural and social circles. As a country doctor, he was haunted by the proximity of death, which was never far from his daily rounds. Mann often hints in Hold Still that in her own work, she may be living out her father’s unfulfilled artistic aspirations, as well as his fascination with mortality.

Body Farm
From Body Farm

Beyond graphically documenting these exposed bodies in the fenced university plot, Mann also photographed the skin and remains of her beloved pet greyhound, Eva. Another section of What Remains documents a clearing on her Lexington, Va., farm where a prison escapee was surrounded by police and then killed himself with a single shot to the head. Of course, Mann walked over to the open field and made a photo. Here is how she describes it:

The underbrush was matted down, patches of blue and orange spray paint marked coordinates of some kind, yellow crime tape hung on the wild rose, and, at the base of a hickory tree, a dark pool of blood glistened on the frozen soil. I was tempted to touch its perfectly tensioned surface. Instead, as I stared, it shrank perceptibly, forming a brief meniscus before leveling off again, as if the earth had taken a delicate sip.

This near clinical yet poetic description, a photographic memento mori, is indicative of Mann’s writing style in Hold Still. Like her photos, her words are precise and evocative. In a wide-ranging interview with Charlie Rose when What Remains was published, Mann described the genesis of these studies of death, from Eva’s remains to the blood, bones and lead rifle balls buried deep in the Antietam battlefield.

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The scientific perspective of Mann’s father is a thread running throughout her photography, even in early work like Immediate Family, the 1992 book of some 60 photos of her children, Emmett, Jessie and Virginia. There is even a a bit of a detached point of view in this deeply intimate work.

But even more germane to her memoir is the revelation that in her adolescence, her artistic interest was not photography, but writing, a field in which she earned a master’s degree. Hold Still is so much more than a memoir of “my life as a photographer.” Mann does discuss in detail how her technical and aesthetic style evolved from that battered old Leica to a medium-format camera, then to an 8x10 bellows view camera, and finally to the demanding strictures of wet collodion photography, a technique requiring a portable darkroom, which she built into her van.

Then, after a horseback-riding accident resulted in injuries that required a near two-year recuperation, Mann decided to undertake a series of self-portraits — readily available subject matter for an invalid — and learned the even more demanding intricacies of the ambrotype.

As if completing a full circle of haunted subject matter, many of these self-portraits bear an uncanny resemblance to the portraits of the decaying corpses in What Remains.

What Remains is also the title of a documentary made by her friend Steven Cantor in 2005. Here is a trailer, which shows Mann on her Virginia farm:

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Until now, I have intentionally avoided writing about Mann’s most controversial, most crucial body of work: Immediate Family. It is deeply ironic that this much-debated subject matter is also what is closest to her: her three children, before and during puberty. In a September 1992 cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Robert B. Woodward described how Mann decided to make her own children the subject of her work:

Beginning in 1979, she had three children in five years, and time for setting up a camera in the wilderness or on construction sites grew scarce. Her solution to the demands of motherhood, which have eaten away at the schedules of artistic women throughout the ages, was ingenious: with her children as subjects, making art became a kind of child care.

The family portraits began in 1984, when Jessie came home from a neighbor's, her face swollen with gnat bites. Mann put her against a wall, took a dead-on picture and called it ‘Damaged Child.’ ‘That picture made me aware of the potential right under my nose,’ she says. The next day, with Jessie's face still lumpy, she arranged props around her and took more pictures. From its inception, the family series has played around with these two antagonistic elements: factual documentary and contrived fiction.

In the same magazine story, Mann recounted some of the firestorm over these photographs of her children, who are naked in some of the images. The publication of this book unleashed abusive attacks by some photography critics and moral guardians, who questioned not only the propriety of such images, but also Mann’s worthiness as a mother.

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In retrospect, it might have been naïve for Mann to give the Times reporter access to her children and home, where he was able to observe the chamber drama of sibling rivalry as well as Mann’s stage-managing of the photo sessions. Mann has since said she was blindsided by the reporter’s probing critique of work that she felt was simply a study of childhood in all its beauty and awkwardness. (Mann had grown up somewhat feral and wanted her children to also experience an unbridled childhood. Nudity in the privacy of the family home was no big deal.) As if the Times story were not fuel enough for the self-styled judges of morality, The Wall Street Journal published a photo of Mann’s 4-year-old daughter, Virginia, as part of an op-ed piece by Raymond Sokolov. It was a frontal nude study of Virginia that had been on the cover of Aperture, an art photography quarterly not likely to be on the radar of “defenders of decency.” Still, the WSJ story was published in September 1991, one year before the Times piece. Mann writes that Virginia was hurt and shamed by censoring black bands that had been matted over her eyes, breasts and pubic area. Virginia wrote a letter to the journalist.

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While in total sympathy with the defense of this work Mann articulated in her April 16 piece for The New York Times, I can’t help but wonder why she was surprised yet again, a year later, by the public response to Woodward's Times story. Also, fair to ask, why was her 4-year-old even exposed to the WSJ article? Here is how Mann explains her work in Immediate Family:

 Out of a conviction that my lens should remain open to the full scope of their childhood, and with the willing, creative participation of everyone involved, I photographed their triumphs, confusion, harmony and isolation, as well as the hardships that tend to befall children — bruises, vomit, bloody noses, wet beds — all of it …. When I stepped behind the camera and my kids stepped in front of it, I was a photographer and they were actors, and we were making a photograph together. And in a similar vein, many people mistook the photographs for reality or attributed qualities to my children (one letter-­writer called them ‘mean’) based on the way they looked in the pictures. The fact is that these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind and shade. These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph.

5. falling child

Again, what Mann says is factually accurate, but one could also argue that it is not the whole picture. Not every “concerned” photographer or photojournalist accepts that his or her work can be reduced to only formal and technical parameters. (An emotional response to the subject is at the heart of the work.)

In any case, here is a trailer for the Academy Award-nominated documentary short Blood Ties, also by Steven Cantor, made when Mann was creating the Immediate Family work. She defends the imperative of making these intensely personal images exactly as she deems necessary.

And here is a slideshow video of images from the book. The slowly dissolving succession of these family photos constructs an intimate portrait of filial bonding that, it seems to me, no one can dare fault.

4.

Mann's April 16  New York Times article is excerpted from Hold Still and concentrates almost totally on her defense of the photographs from Immediate Family. It reflects the intelligence and richly expressive style of the memoir. The book is so much more than an account of her work or a record of her life; it’s a compelling story of several generations of family on both her mother’s and father’s sides, and it can be compared to the best autobiographies of growing up in America. The multi-generational Bildungsroman also comes to mind. In Hold Still, Mann’s development as an artist is intimate and revelatory, warts and all. I suspect that she was working on the text for several decades. There is an urgency to much of it that, along with the dozens of family photos and letters carefully collected over time, is painfully revealed in those white-hot moments of personal reflection. Although very readable, it is a densely written book of almost 500 pages; this density derives not from the page count, but from a judicious interplay between text and photographs, with the text seeming to morph into the photos in a flow that obviates any captions.

Mann discusses how simply each new body of work starts, with an easy and unexpected single image, and just how quickly it confronts her with the specter of mediocrity, an abiding anxiety that seems to always stalk her.

So I soldier on, taking one dodo of a picture after another, enticed by just enough promising ones to keep going. Soon I encounter another obstacle: the new work, so precarious, unformed and tender, is being subverted by my old work, which was once itself precarious, unformed and tender but with the passage of time has now taken on a dignified air of inevitability … the new work is always intractable, breech-presented, mulishly stubborn, and near impossible to man-haul into existence …. Who can know the agony of tamped-down hope between the shutter’s release and the image in the developer? Or the reckless joy I feel when I realize that, at last, I have a good one; eagerly, my ebbing confidence throws off the winding-sheet and resumes business at the old headquarters, a wondrous resurrection.

In her recent work of ambrotype self-portraiture, Mann even creates a kind of serial grid, combining disparate images in a haunting montage.

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Not only does Mann limn the creative process of any artist, she also tracks the inherent differences between working in film and digital: that magical, uncertain and haunting dialogue within the self until you see a print from the developed negative vs. a quick check of the pixel screen on the back of your digital camera.

5.

Proud Flesh, the recent work Mann has done with her husband, seems a natural follow-up to the ambrotype, vulnerable self-portraits she made after her accident. The aging body, the inevitable prelude to the theme of death that has so haunted her work, offers a particular sort of consolation, which she describes:

To be able to take my pictures, I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about. And I must do so with both ardor and cool appraisal, with the passions of eye and heart, but in that ardent heart there must also be a splinter of ice. And so it was with fire and ice that Larry and I made these pictures: exploring what it means to grow older, to let the sunshine fall voluptuously on a still-­pleasing form, to spend quiet winter afternoons together. The studio’s wood stove was insufficient, but he had two fingers of bourbon to warm him. No phone, no kids, NPR turned low, the smell of the chemicals, the two of us still in love, still at the work of making pictures that we hope will matter.

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So, Mann’s work is truly a record of a life in art, from her earliest abstract studies as a student at Putney; as mother of three; as doyenne of a proud, albeit idiosyncratic Southern family dynasty; as an incisive if merciless self-portraitist; and, finally, as loving and aging wife sharing the small pleasures and moments of quotidian existence, which she always has insisted is the true subject of her photography.

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