Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs

Sally Mann, Back Bay Books / Little Brown and Company, 2015


Review | I have curiously held off on reviewing this book. I don’t know why. I just really like this book and I savored reading it. I am not alone. “Hold Still, A Memoir With Photographs” was a best-seller and a National Book Award finalist. Mann is one of the finest art photographers working in America. And one hell of a writer. This is a good book.

The impetus for “Hold Still” can be traced to an invitation by Harvard professor John Staffer to deliver a series of three lectures known as the Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization. A bit of a coup for a photographer, really, and it is a measure of Mann’s skills as a writer that she was asked.

Staffer’s invitation led to Mann digging into her family history, opening string-wrapped boxes full of letters and photographs. And what a history. Murder, infidelity, huge personal courage, kindness, tragedy and cleverness all play a big part in the story. There are stories in “Hold Still” that would outdo tabloid journalism and things that would not be out of place in journals of the highest intellectual aspirations. 

"Hold Still" is about photography and about life and family, which is often what photography is about, anyway. It is a story about place. The book revolves around the farm Mann and her husband Larry purchased from her parents in the Virginia hills on the Maury River. 

The farm, Virginia, Mann’s mother and beloved father, literature, her dear friend Cy Twombly, her nanny Gee-Gee, photography, her husband and children all swirl about place like a universe swinging around a black hole. The farm is the navel of Mann’s universe. The place of her family. Place is the thing here. In fact, the name of the book puts it right out front: hold still, stay in place.

There is a clear-eyed frankness about Mann’s writing. The work of an extremely well-educated, smart, open-minded woman willing to look straight at life and discuss it openly: good and bad. 

Her discussion of her process, and her inner struggle applied to photography, should be a must-read for any photographer or artist. Mann is open about the crushing self-doubt that many artists deal with. She lives for its opposite, the rush of creating.

Mann’s photos are a revelation. Strikingly in the moment, vivid and alive with tension and always beautiful. It is hard to imagine that they were taken with an 8x10 view camera. One of the most cumbersome and slow cameras there is to operate. With determination she grinds her way to what she wants to see. 

“You wait for your eye to sort of ’turn on,’ for the elements to fall into place and that ineffable rush to occur, a feeling of exultation when you look through the ground glass, counting ever so slowly, clenching teeth and whispering to Jessie to holdstillholdstillholdstill and just knowing that it will be good, that it is true.”

Mann is no stranger to the perils of being famous, or infamous, if you will. Her series of photographs of her children were like a red flag to the politically correct, religious conservatives and the troubled. 

The issue that some people had was the fact that the children are without clothes in many of the photos. As one might imagine, in the conservative South this had the effect of drawing a large amount of negative, personal and nasty criticism.

Mann was stalked and threatened for years by a disturbed, violent man. To the point that the FBI and local police were involved in protecting her and her children. At one point she was falsely accused by a mal-wisher of being involved in the death of Larry’s parents. 

“Hold Still” jumps about a bit. It is more a collection of short stories and essays than a straight-line history. But for all that, it is very engrossing. It is a discussion on photography, a response to her critics and an exploration of her family's past, and an attempt to place herself in the generational continuum.

This is a book you will read and (several times) in the middle of doing so, will find yourself telling your partner, “You have got to hear this.” –m.b.