Sally Mann, Hold Still

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Little, Brown and Company (here). Hardcover (6 ½ x 9 ½ inches), 496 pages, with 40 black-and-white and color photographs. $32 hardcover. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: This review comes with a warning that I may not be a wholly impartial critic, as I play a minor role in Sally Mann’s memoir. A 1992 cover story that I wrote for the New York Times Magazine about her and her book Immediate Family created a media sensation for a week or two. An editor headlined the piece “The Disturbing Photographs of Sally Mann,” and that  teaser, along with the humid images inside of her three lissome children, clothed and unclothed, ensured an avid readership at a time when the country was hysterical about the perils of child pornography.

I don’t want to exaggerate the effect of our brief interaction on her life. Her memoir is less an account of her adult career as a celebrated photographer and more an elaborate rumination on the forces (genetic and willful) that have given a pleasing warp to her character and her art. Most admirers of Mann, and I am one, will find themselves doubly impressed after seeing what she can do on the page. Her voice as a writer—funny, warm, mature, planted—seems to me even more assured than her wobblier vision as a photographer.

Mann has rummaged around in the family attic, literally and figuratively, and uncovered enough secrets and lies in locked trunks for a Netflix mini-series. Early chapters feature instructive stories about her tomboyish childhood riding horses; her progressive education at the Putney School and Bennington College; and her good fortune in meeting her husband, local lawyer and all-around good guy, Larry Mann. The middle chapters go deep into the gothic biographies of his parents and of her parents (as individuals and a couple), as well as of her roguish older ancestors, and of the beloved black nanny/maid who worked for her family for almost 50 years. Along the way, she stops to discuss her various photographic projects over the decades and to describe her lucky friendships with fellow writers and artists, Cy Twombly, most notably. Interspersed are often shrewd observations about the inspiring Southern landscape of rural Virginia, and about race and the obliviousness of white privilege.

In this thick recital of incidents, my ghostly presence and words can be detected on only a handful of pages. It was disconcerting nonetheless to learn from a friend who had read the galley that I was mentioned. Most journalists are oddly thin-skinned and would prefer to write about others than to be written about, perhaps because we know how slippery language can be or how little of what is said or observed in an interview ends up in a published piece. Any number of factors—laziness; tin-eared and ham-handed editors; the constraints of the page; what you ate or imbibed, or when you last slept—can make that imprecision worse.

I had remembered being fair to Mann when I wrote about her and regretted only a couple of sentences where I hadn’t captured the bantering tone of her voice. We had corresponded on friendly terms for more than a year after my article appeared. But how my motives would be portrayed in her book made me nervous.

I hoped I wouldn’t have to fall back on the fatuous defense of the big-mouthed politician and athlete—“my words were taken out of context”—and was relieved when a friend of mine read the passages aloud to me and declared, “she let you off easy.”

Last month, when the New York Times Magazine excerpted her memoir (here) and linked it to my old piece (from 1992, here), she altered slightly what she wrote in the book about our encounter and her reaction to what I had written: “Woodward, though he was somewhat sympathetic, pressed his foot hard on the controversy throttle, framing the discussion of my work with a series of provocative rhetorical questions:

“If it is her solemn responsibility, as she says, ‘to protect my children from all harm,’ has she knowingly put them at risk by releasing these pictures into a world where pedophilia exists? . . . Do these sensual images emerge from the behavior of her subjects or are they shaped by the taste and fantasies of the photographer for an affluent audience?”

Mann’s memoir proves her to be a careful storyteller and highly self-aware of her own behavior. But she is guilty here of a rare grammatical inaccuracy. Calling my questions “rhetorical” implies that I already knew the answers.

I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, whether she did the right thing by releasing these photographs into a world where strangers might not interpret images of her children as she, their artistic mother, claimed to see them.

It was risky business on her part. As a critic, I commend her artistic daring and willingness to defy polite society and the photo establishment, even if I cringe at a number of the poses she chose to include in the book. To my eye, several photographs in Immediate Family—of the defiant trio (Emmett, Jessie, Virginia) on the cover; of Jessie in Lolita glasses, or twirling naked on a picnic table, or holding a candy cigarette; of cherubic Virginia with arms akimbo—conformed too neatly with Sally’s fantasy of what a perfect childhood should be: sensuous, exploratory, full of small and real pitfalls, but ultimately sheltered in motherly love. Her children must have grown up regarding their every movement as potentially telling or glamorous because they were so carefully photographed and printed. They weren’t free actors but her rhapsodic projections.

What’s clear from Mann’s not always coherent defense of her actions in the book is that she, too, is uncertain about the answers to her questions I asked—a confusion that, I believe, only increases her stature by adding a complicating layer to her motives. No one likes a smug, self-satisfied artist and Mann’s intelligence attractively joins a bold disregard for convention and self-doubt.

She explains in one chapter how sessions with the children were conducted. Included is a series of photographs of Emmett and another pair of Virginia, both of them unclothed in the water or having just emerged from it. In each case, she was after an expression or gesture she couldn’t quite define but that she could recognize when she saw it. It took Emmett seven or eight poses for her to be satisfied; Virginia achieved the effect her mother wanted on the second shot. Many times, Mann writes, the camera would be set up on the side and “when something interesting happened, I would ask everyone to hold still, tweak something, and then shoot.”

In another chapter she writes about the consequences of the attention these pictures received, some of it unwelcome. She was condemned from afar as a Bad Mother (by utter fools.) Even more hurtful was the sinister interest she had provoked from stalkers who wrote or called the house and wanted to meet the children. She writes of having Lindberg-baby nightmares. A former FBI agent had to be called and at least one man was arrested. None of this could she reasonably have expected.

But a year before my article appeared, Raymond Sokolov in the Wall Street Journal had taken her to task for some of the pictures in Immediate Family. They were being censored by newspapers and she was under attack in certain quarters of the media. The pictures were therefore already “controversial” before my interview with her, so she cannot have been quite so “blindsided” by the questions I raised, as she claims in her memoir.

By the summer of 1992 she was already selling lots of books (10,000 in a few months, with continual reprints, as she proudly notes) as well as dozens of prints. Whatever trouble my article stirred up for her only accelerated this sales process by making her a subject of more intense curiosity, someone whose side of the argument readers and viewers were eager to follow in articles and documentary films.

Some critics thought then (and think now) that she should have released the pictures only when the children were older and could grant informed consent. She doesn’t quite face this issue; nor does she ask herself in the memoir how much of her later success is dependent on her family pictures. Would she be represented by Edwynn Houk and Larry Gagosian if not for that initial burst of notoriety? Would she have found a publisher that allowed her to do landscapes with glass plates and collodion, had she not already proven her sales potential with Immediate Family? (These are not, by the way, rhetorical questions. I’m not sure of the answers.)

Her own ambiguity about the series emerges in a later chapter where she discusses taking portraits of black men, a project she began as an exploration of slavery’s legacy and her native state of Virginia’s pivotal role in thwarting its abolition, both during the writing of the U.S. Constitution and before the Civil War. As the person behind the camera, she recognizes that in these formal encounters between a black man and a white woman, her hands are on the button of power.

“Exploitation lies at the root of every great portrait, and all of us know it,” she writes. “Even the simplest picture of another person is ethically complex, and the ambitious photographer, no matter how sincere, is compromised right from the git-go. There are nimble justifications for making potentially injurious imagery, some grounded in expediency and others cloaked with the familiar Faulknerian conceit: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

She could as easily be writing about the “ethically complex” mother-children relations in Immediate Family. A few pages later, she proposes that the actions of any serious photographer were/are justified by their ultimate goal: “If transgression is at the very heart of photographic portraiture, then the ideal outcome—beauty, communion, honesty, and empathy—mitigates the offense. Art can afford the kindest crucible of association, and within its ardent issue lies a grace that both transcends and tenders understanding.”

I have never thought Mann was a bad or misguided parent; I have sometimes thought she was a mawkish photographer who tended to poeticize childhood and landscape. The photographs of her children at leisure used to strike me as uncomfortably like Bruce Weber’s ads for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren—without the clothes. But learning about her eccentric family background and the routines of her daily life, with her five greyhounds sprawled around the house, I now sense the pre-Raphaelite strains in this work. There’s a dash of Edward Burne-Jones in her treatment of her artfully thin and unsmiling offspring, with their cascading ringlets and soulful eyes.

And despite her protestations that Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia were willing partners in these tableaus, Mann is smart enough to know that a 13 year-old can’t possibly understand the ramifications of exposing his or her naked body to strangers in a photograph. Their mother didn’t herself suspect what the reaction would be, as she readily admits. So how could they?

Her greatest photographs, in my opinion, are the ones she took on a Body Farm in 2001, an assignment for the New York Times Magazine. At this forensics laboratory in Tennessee, the FBI studies the rate of decaying flesh and interior organs among the dead by exposing corpses to various conditions. The scenes forced her to wear scientific lenses that corrected her innately Romantic vision of the land and of death. Macabre, without pressing too hard on the Edgar Allan Poe throttle, the images are poetic (a blend of Keats and Heaney) as well as clinical and grimly funny–a black comedy, similar in tone to Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, his 1955 movie about a dead body that won’t stay buried. Her color photograph of a corpse wearing a Harvard sweat-shirt is mordant and indirectly collaborative: some wiseass at the Body Farm has dressed the anonymous figure in Ivy League colors. She just happened to photograph the incongruous result.

The backgrounds in these portraits are also crisp and cold instead of soft, vague, and languorous. If Mann has a weakness as a photographer, it’s her tendency to fall back on pictorialist solutions to problems. To conjure up the invisible dead for her series on Civil War battlefields, she experimented with patches of collodion on glass plates, as if blotted-out foregrounds and heavy-lidded skies would be surrogates for her indistinct feelings about the slaughter from those years.

Like all memoirs, hers is a blend of truth-telling and vanity. The setting of a small town in the rural South may recall To Kill a Mockingbird—Scout’s father was a lawyer, Sally’s a doctor—but Mann’s writing is more honest than Lee’s, especially about race.

A story about the day an escaped prisoner tried to make his way across her backwoods property, while she was in the house alone, is told with the humor and sang froid of Flannery O’Conner. Imagining the convict to be a fat old pervert, Mann later discovers—after his capture in the woods, where he is mysteriously shot in the head by police—that this lifelong criminal of the tabloid mind was in fact a poor, confused 19 year-old.

Visiting the unmarked site of his execution, she ends the chapter by asking: “Would a stranger, coming upon it, say, a century later, somehow sense the sad, lost secret of the place, the sanctity of this death-inflected soil?”

Mann’s voice, when it yearns like that of a frustrated 19th century elegist, can be hard to listen to. I’m sure she knows the answer to her own rhetorical question. These slips of the tongue, though, are few in a book that rockets along, sparking flashes of wit, without losing momentum. It is a group portrait, but Sally, the only one in her family with the distance and the nerve to see everyone in perspective, does not place herself at the center. That distinction belongs to Gee-Gee, the black housemaid who raised her and whose story lingered after I closed the book.

There are no photographs of her children as adults in the memoir, and almost no biographical updates. This is certainly deliberate on her part. They have received enough publicity and, she has decided, they don’t need more—even if perhaps they wouldn’t object. One of the ironies of this book is that when they are finally able to decide whether or not they want media attention, she has decided to keep them safely out of the spotlight. She remains in control.

Mann’s bracing declaration that all good artists are engaged in exploitation is the photographic equivalent of Janet Malcolm’s infamous statement about her profession: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Malcolm was ostensibly excoriating journalist Joe McGuiness, who had tricked the convicted murderer Jeffrey Macdonald into sitting for interviews by pretending to support his court appeal. But she may also have been practicing her own mea culpa, as she later found herself compromised in a similar relationship with the psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson. He believed she wanted to write a profile of him because she sided with his quarrels against the Freud archives. Her published piece, he was dismayed to learn, portrayed him as a bit of a nut. (Malcolm’s accusation/confession is itself a gloss on Joan Didion’s earlier harsh admission that “writers are always selling somebody out.”)

No doubt, Mann felt bruised by her encounter with me because she expected complete agreement with her side of the story, much as Masson miscalculated with Malcolm. Interviews are “ethically complex” collaborations, as are portrait sessions. In my defense, readers deluged the New York Times with letters after my article appeared and my editor forwarded them to Mann in Virginia. When she and her intern reviewed the array of responses, they divided them into “For, Against, and What the fuck?” As opinions were divided enough to form three piles—with the majority, I’m guessing, weighed in her favor—I believe I fulfilled my duty as a journalist, even if the job is “morally indefensible.”

Collector’s POV: Sally Mann is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery (here) and Gagosian Gallery (here). Mann’s photographs are widely available in the secondary markets, with prices generally ranging between $3000 and $260000 in recent years, with most still under $20000.

Read more about: Sally Mann, Little, Brown and Company

2 comments

  1. Mary /

    I don’t think she “let you off easy.” As she accuses her critics of doing, she made something out of nothing (with the exception of the title) in your article. She does not deal particularly graciously with criticism. There are certainly shrill, philistine prudes among her critics, but she seems to see one in almost anyone who would dare to question her.

    She’s also full of contradictions. Why would she expose her daughter to the Wall Street Journal article, if not to exploit her “heartbreaking” reaction? Were her children naturals at modelling, or did she have to wrangle them, as suggested in the comment on her father’s portrait of his daughter? Why does she read her own personality into photographs of her young self, but scoff at anyone who would give the same treatment to the pictures of her own children? If her nanny was “the single most important person in [her] life,” why didn’t she know the number of Virginia Carter’s children before she did research for her book? (See: http://www.art21.org/videos/short-sally-mann-the-two-virginias)

    Her art stands for itself. She almost always produces astoundingly beautiful photographs. I think that the label ‘disturbing’ is undeserved, even if understandable in the widely varying contexts in which her pictures may be viewed. Still, it’s too bad her motives and persona are so fraught. It’s always an open question whether that is a necessary price for art.

  2. R /

    Maybe I should thank Mann for making me think twice about the photographs I made of my children, but honestly I don’t think I have to. Children trust their mothers and want to please them. It didn’t take more than a few outings with me as a photographer before my young son was looking for scenes for me to shoot and inserting himself into them. I could see clearly this was a slippery slope. The one time I heard Sally Mann speak she was repeating a talk she had given at Harvard on black men and her Southern self. The talk was self absorbed , full of mea culpas, and naively racist beyond the pale. It confirmed my distaste for her sensibility even if I did appreciate some of her work.
    I can answer those non-rhetorical questions easily, no and no. Success in the art world can involve moral compromise and it does matter. Mann’s success was demanded from her by Gagosian in a sense. Why stay obscure when someone is offering you a fortune and fame? But hey, that’s what the crossroads are all about.
    The reviewer makes a similar mistake. In an otherwise excellent review he spends way too much time on “background.” Do we really need to know all the gossip behind the review. He’s a critic; It’s his job. No explanation is necessary. Sally Mann has always enjoyed bounteous male press. There’s context and then there’s the context.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Rodrigo Valenzuela, Intervention @Laurence Miller

Rodrigo Valenzuela, Intervention @Laurence Miller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 black and white and color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter