If you know who Sally Mann is, it’s most likely because you know her stunning, sensual photography. And if you know Mann’s photography, it’s most likely because of her controversial pictures of her family. But there’s another side of Mann that you won’t see until May, when Little, Brown publishes her memoir, Hold Still. The book reveals Mann to be a writer whose authorial voice is just as telling, daring, and riveting as her photography.
For over three decades, Mann chronicled her fascination with the Southern landscape and her WASP heritage, in photographs that made her famous and that hang on museum walls. The pictures of her three children and their high-spirited life frolicking, sometimes naked, on the family’s farm in Virginia were the subject of a New York Times magazine cover story published in the 1990s. The photographs also made her infamous. Her memoir—a Southern Gothic rendering of a life, almost 500 pages long—tackles the big themes: love, family, race, gender, geography, art, and death and reveals what it’s like to be a Southerner, a woman, an artist, an outlier.
Mann didn’t start out to write a memoir; she says she doesn’t even like the genre: “I think they [memoirs] are sadistic on some level. I didn’t want the book to be a memoir, but Michael [Sand, Mann’s editor] said, ‘That’s the shelf it’s going to be on, so just deal with it.’ ”
The book grew out of the prestigious Massey Lectures, a series of autobiographical talks that Mann delivered at Harvard on her 60th birthday. Writing daily over the next four years, she turned the lectures into a book and herself into a first-time author at 64. When asked whether she thinks that one’s abilities as a writer decline with age, she says, “I guess it depends when you start—I had all those years reading other people’s great writings.”
For both the lectures and the book, Mann found her material in the attic—in boxes filled with memorabilia and artifacts, not just from her own unexamined past but also her mother’s, her father’s, her husband’s, even her childhood nanny Gee Gee’s. Pictures of report cards, horse-show ribbons, wedding announcements from the society pages, and even a letter from the school board criticizing the teenage Mann’s wild driving are all published throughout the book as they come up in the narrative. There are also plenty of photographs, including pictures of her ancestors and members of her family—some familiar from her past work and some previously unpublished. They are so critical to the storytelling that the subtitle for the book is A Memoir with Photographs.
Interestingly, the photographs are not sequestered in interior album pages, as pictorial centerfolds of the subjects’ lives, but instead they appear in tandem with the words. Seeing the pictures this way increases the reader’s understanding, Mann believes, though she acknowledges that publishers have their reasons for keeping photos and text apart: “What makes it so hard from a publisher’s point of view is that you have to have better paper if you’re going to show off the pictures. They put a little segment of good paper in the center of the book, and the rest is printed on uncoated paper.”
Mann feels so strongly about this issue that when she sold an excerpt to Gagosian Gallery magazine, she objected to the editors grouping the photos in pages preceding the story. “The whole point is that these things relate to each other,” she says. “It’s very important to have the words married with the pictures.” The piece that the magazine chose focuses on Mann’s friendship with Gagosian artist Cy Twombly. Twombly, a modernist painter, was born in Virginia and returned there after living in New York and Rome.
Mann describes her Southern roots with affection in the book, but she believes that those roots, more than her gender, kept her from being recognized in the art world: “Staying in Virginia made it really difficult for me to get any attention in the art world. That was a real struggle.”
The South, on the other hand, is well known for its writers, including such notable authors as Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. Mann notes Jonathan Williams especially, an editor and publisher who championed the Southern voice: “He lived down there in North Carolina,” she says. “He was a friend of Reynolds Price. There were very few people in my life back then; of course, they’re all in the book. They definitely gave me potent inspiration, particularly Reynolds.”
For Mann, writing had always been her first love. A poet in her youth and later a M.F.A. graduate in literature (she earned her degree at Hollis University), she faced a difficult choice in her 20s: “I chose photography over writing. I had to make a living,” she says. To help support her growing family, she photographed weddings and babies, swim teams and school graduations. She made money but not much. “The children were eligible for school lunches for years and years,” she says.
What brought Mann to the attention of the general public was the publication of Immediate Family. Virulent critics accused her of objectifying her children in salacious ways. The collateral publicity changed her family’s life in ways that continue to affect them: “I remember when the family album came out, people would just knock on our door because they thought they knew us, and that, of course, is one of the great hazards.” Another, more menacing, hazard was an obsessed stalker who continued to taunt the family for years after.
Nonetheless, Mann stands by that series of photographs: “It makes me sound like [I’m] being a bad mother, but I had no problem with it. If there was something that I knew was going to be a good picture, maybe there was a switch that clicked and I just became a photographer.” Her children became her subjects, not her children—with one exception, when she couldn’t even think of picking up a camera. While accompanying her young son, Emmett, to school, he was hit by a car and lay bleeding in the street until an ambulance arrived. “I remember thinking, how can anyone take a picture of anyone like this?” she recalls. “I could never be a photojournalist.”
Mann’s decision to write a book came, in part, because she finds that photographs lie; they “rob all of us of our memory.” She says that “while at once they try to freeze the past, they instead corrupt it.” Photographs, she says, create their own memories; they morph with every viewing. To establish the point, she opens the memoir with a telling quotation from W.H. Auden: “The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye/ See as honestly as they know how, but they lie.”
Mann says she found words much harder to produce than pictures: “The thing that makes writing so difficult is you don’t have the element of serendipity. At least with a photograph, you can set up the camera and something might happen. You might be a lousy photographer, but you can get a good picture if you just take enough of them. Words are just entirely different. You have to carve them out of rock, out of your soul.”
But Mann didn’t carve everything out of her soul: “I left out parts of my life, and I was really careful; I tried not to settle scores.” Before publication, she showed the manuscript to her two brothers, her cousins, her children, even former school friends—and took out parts or used pseudonyms if they objected to the content. “They have their own stories to tell,” she says.
Did the fallout from the family pictures make Mann more cautious? Not likely. In fact, she is considering a second family picture book. The first, she says, was “really hard hitting and truly aggressive, but the original body of work—and there are hundreds of pictures—are a little softer, a little more quotidian. You know, a little sweeter.”
And then there’s the project Mann has been working on for close to three decades: “It’s a sort of unusual body of work, because I don’t know many women photographers who have photographed their spouses or partners that way.” She admits the intimate nature of the pictures intimidates her, adding,“If there are any pictures I’d be scared to publish...” without finishing the thought. Her husband, Larry, has already given his permission. “I might wait until we’re both dead to release this work,” Mann says. “He’s the city attorney for this little tiny town. Just imagine Atticus Finch, pictures of him with his hard-on everywhere.”
Mann may write more books, but first she has to promote the memoir—a record of her life that is intimate, outrageous, frank, and fearless. When her editor was trying to persuade her to put the book in the memoir category—so “they know how to sell it”—he told her that publishing a memoir is a little like having a retrospective as an artist. “I don’t like that,” Mann says. “I don’t like the finality—those should be done after you’re dead. I look at these 35-year-olds having retrospectives at the Whitney... What the hell?”
Carrie Tuhy is a New York City-based writer and world explorer