Sally Mann poses the kind of questions which haunt many poets and philosophers, embracing the land as witness, including Canadian writers Candace Savage and Sharon Butala, who have written powerfully about the landscape of memory. (I am reminded, too, of the haunting but beautiful image on the cover of M.G. Vassanji's recent memoir, And Home Was Kariakoo.)
"And the story depicted in the irregular weave is of a place extravagant in its beauty, reckless in its fecundity, terrible in its indifference, and dark with memories."
Now in her sixties, she has had many opportunities to reflect on the role and power and limitations of photography. Those who appreciate, let alone practice, the art form, will find her ideas of interest.
Perhaps "photographs actually rob all of us of our memory". Or, maybe: "Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time."
It's possible that discussing the meaning of photography is less effective than simply allowing it to speak for itself. Readers of Hold Still have plenty of opportunities to explore this possibility, whether by observing casual family photographs or carefully constructed artworks (this volume presents an abundance of both). At this point in her career, she is poised to compare and contrast different aspects of her life as an artist.
"In general, I am past taking pictures for the sake of seeing how things look in a photograph, although sometimes, for fun, I still do that. But these days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept. This work with black men, though inchoate and not yet even printed, seems to be a little of both."
And although she is at the stage where she understands herself to be a photographer first and a writer second, she does place an importance upon words. She also identifies specific words and concepts from other languages which have profoundly impacted her work and her life.
Take, for example, the Welsh word hiraeth, meaning ‘distance pain’, which is a “yearning for the lost places of our past” and “not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love” but, instead, a “word about the pain of loving a place”.
Or, consider, the Japanese phrase mono no aware, translated as “beauty tinged with sadness”. Mann writes: "For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing."
In most cases, it seems as though she has come across the word after she had experienced the desire to express the concept. Her life's work embodies those ideas, so it's clearly something which existed within even before she discovered the language which adequately represents it.
That spark of recognition is likely to await many of Hold Still's readers. The book sprawls across a wide variety of subjects and it's unlikely that readers will be able to predict the intersection of fascination with content, for the memoir has an unconventional structure.
It would seem as though the manuscript of Hold Still is a written response to an imagined gallery showing of Sally Mann's works of a lifetime. Time slips and slides in Hold Still. Whereas a photo can arrest an image, the memories which accompany such an image are multi-faceted and, often, messy.
Even so, by the time readers turn the final pages, one has a clear sense of Sally Mann's work and way of being with the world.
If you're keen, I have more to say about this volume, here on BuriedInPrint.