Friday, June 26, 2015

Hold Still, by Sally Mann

Look at me, reviewing a book written in this century, by someone who's not dead. Incredible.

The short review: This is among the finest books I have ever read, and you should read it too. It's really really good.

Unpacking that a little.

Mann accomplishes a lot for one book, and despite doing a lot of different things in a single book, it all hangs together. In no particular order, she gives us:
  • her story, her history
  • a good description of her artistic process
  • an exceedingly nuanced critique of the south and the american problems of race
  • a good critique of photography

The book is hilarious and poignant. It is powerful. She's got a lot to say, and she's really good at saying it.

There's a great deal of personal history, both factual and, hmm, perhaps emotional is a good way to put it. It's fascinating stuff. Still, what else can a reviewer say about it? Read it. Enjoy it.

For the working photographer, especially the photographer trying to make Art, she has a nice set of examples, of the duds. In particular detail, she shows us the process by which she and her son Emmett made "The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude" which took a lot of effort, and a lot of sheets of film. Her process is not that different from mine, and I suspect this is not because we are particularly sympatico but rather because this is how photography she is made. You work at it. You make bad pictures and not so good pictures and, sometimes, with a little luck, a lot of sweat (originally I misspelled that as swear which strikes me as just as good), and maybe even a little talent, you make something pretty good.

In general the book contains a lot of photographs. Finished work, but also failures, and snapshots taken "on the job" as it were.

If there was a an Absolute Zero for bullshit rather than temperature, this book would hew very close to it. It is, in a way, appalling in its directness, in the author's clearness of vision. I am reminded of a line from LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel about a people for whom gender is fluid. In it, an ordinary human character, gendered in the same way we are, notes in a dispatch that the people of this planet judge you entirely without regard for gender, and that this "is appalling." It takes a moment for the line to sink in, to realize what a shock that would be, and how it might leave you or I socially and psychologically lost and adrift. There is an element of that in Hold Still. The clarity and openness of the author becomes disconcerting, almost upsetting, at times. And yet, it's not simply memoir-porn.

I think perhaps she sees more clearly with words than with photographs, and she sees very very well with the camera.

Slipped in there, for no particular reason except that Mrs. Mann grew up in the south, grew up steeped in its racism, she offers up a detailed critique of racism and the south from a personal perspective. She was raised essentially very liberal, very egalitarian. Looking back, she sees that somehow she missed out on so much. So much of her daily life, so much of what she was -- and was not -- aware of day-to-day was completely imbued with differing standards based on skin color. Mann is, of course, utterly open and direct about it all. She picks up and carries her share of the blame without flinching, but also recognizes it as thoroughly embedded in the culture. Everyone took part in the rituals of racism, regardless of skin color and social position. She shows us, without belaboring the point, how much simple inertia is involved here.

She shows us almost nobody who is overtly racist. I assume that in fact she had very little contact with people who were overtly racist, and probably not all that many people who really thought black people were inferior -- poor, uneducated, perhaps, but not really inferior. And yet the social matrix was inviolable, on all sides. Everyone toed the invisible lines with remarkable strictness. It is clear that there was real fear of reprisals, but nobody is pointed out as someone who'd take part. Every town, one supposes, had a few bastards who might well get drunk and do some real damage, but they weren't most people. Or perhaps they weren't her family's people? Most people were just woven inextricably into the social fabric.

I, of course, cannot do it justice. For one, I'm a Yankee, and for another I'm not Sally Mann. Read it, though.

Mann's take on photography is, naturally, larded throughout. A fascinating and recurring theme is the idea that photographs actively destroy memory, and have destroyed hers. Given a photograph of something, we tend to lose the literal memory of the thing and instead remember the photograph. I'm pretty sure Sontag covered some of this, but Mann provides a very personal testimony to the effect. As a photographer herself (unlike Sontag) who's made a point of photographing parts of her own life in detail, she lends a certain extra weight (several tons, perhaps) to the thesis. She remembers, tragically, her own father largely as a series of photographs.

Mann underlines the point that, when we remember through photos, we remember static visuals, and nothing more. No sound, no smell, touch, taste, motion. That is a real loss.

She also spends quite a bit of time arguing that photographs are not real. She has, as always, excellent examples. Her own children, mugging for the camera, look like completely different people from one frame to the next. The sliver of time, rendered in silver on paper, isn't reality. We do tend to confuse it with reality. Mann does not (or at any rate if she does, I missed it) admit that photographs nonetheless partake of reality, and in this I think she is wrong. While her children are not the cold-eyed gang shown in one frame, they did look like that for that 1/30th of a second, and that too is reality.

To be fair, failing to wrestle with this dichotomy is no sin. It's not a resolvable issue, it simply is. A photograph is real, as far as it goes, but that is not terribly far. The troubles arise because we tend to extrapolate from the undeniably real 1/30th of a second to a bigger, wider, deeper, reality, and we simply cannot. Not with any reliability.

Mann does propose, interestingly, that there may perhaps be a specific number of photographs one typically needs to examine in order to form an opinion of a person that approximately matches the opinion held by that person's friends. This is a marvelously precise idea, a marvelously precise way to sketch the problem, and a marvelously precise experiment with a way to measure the results. There are working scientists who would be hard-pressed to develop such a careful design. Mann just tosses it off as a 'maybe you could..' side remark.

Get the book. Take it out of the library, or buy it, whatever. Read it.

Mann isn't just an important and mighty photographer, she's funny, entertaining, and smart. She can write like hell.

Reading this book might not make you happier, but it will make you smarter.

1 comment:

  1. I am gonna buy it then. I am currently finishing "Why Homer matters" which resonated with me as I am originally from a place very close to the greek mythology, and it is also wonderfully written and inspiring in so many ways (but not with regards to photography, I have to add). Then I have this huge Werner Herzog biography/interview which I'm pretty sure will affect the way i see and do photographs.

    But after that -- I also love Sally Mann, and I hate biographies (I know, I know, the Herzog boog? Well it's the first one I've bought, honest!), and I trust what you say so yes, I'll get it.