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Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs


Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

“The kindness of total strangers: the sweet gestures of blind trust and welcome, the common and miraculous somehow made one. It makes me weep. I weep for the great heart of the South, the flawed human heart.” That’s not Tennessee Williams, but it could be. HOLD STILL, a gentle but firm-footed journey through the world of photographer Sally Mann, is a riveting work, similar to Patti Smith’s JUST FRIENDS. Mann’s special attachment to all things below the Mason-Dixon line, however, places her squarely in the pantheon of great Southern writers. Hopefully, this won't be the last time she puts pen to paper.

Mann usually doesn’t deal in words. Pictures are her métier, and she is one of the world’s finest art photographers. But she is also a country girl, a Southern country girl born and bred, and the way the traditions and scenes of her homeland have affected her helps create a tone for this memoir that is so compelling, truthful and beautiful that as soon as I finished the last page and closed the cover, I turned to page one and began reading it again. It is remarkable. HOLD STILL will draw you in so that you’ll want to savor every single word.

"Read this book. If you want to be an artist, carry it around like your Bible. If you strive to be a better mother or daughter, or a more insightful human being, HOLD STILL needs to be with you at all times."

Mann has used her family in her art, and does so again here. She spends pages giving you, in remarkably paced, evocative language, the history of her family and how all their adventures have affected who she is as a woman and as an artist in a way that most more straightforward memoirs could never do. HOLD STILL is a literary masterpiece as much as it is a humble, honest accounting of the life of a girl who took up a camera and decided that she would take a few pictures, not knowing the effect her beautiful talent would have on the rest of the world.

Mann lives in Virginia, right near where she grew up. Her work consists of pictures of things around her. She doesn’t climb mountains in Nepal or spend weeks traveling through some foreign lands to search for inspiration. Instead, she finds it right in front of her, and, as filtered through her perspective, the most normal stuff turns into something transcending any magic you could imagine.

As part of her research, Mann learned things about her parents, a beautiful and reserved mom, and a super whip smart dad with a death obsession. Her husband Larry’s parents also get a detailed look --- with a violent and unusual conclusion. Sorting through family heirlooms and junk drawers, Mann said she was overcome with the amount of Southern Gothic color that each item brought to the surface, and she makes each of those things a key piece in the HOLD STILL puzzle, looking at where she comes from and where the things she loves most in this world have led her.

The cover photo depicts a young girl amidst the clouds. Is she falling? Or did she make the choice to be up there? It seems like that is the question Mann most poignantly asks in this riveting memoir. Is Mann’s work in her blood, something she was born with and can’t control, or do her inspirations and talents come from a carefully organized trek into places known, trails she has chosen because of the way she sees the world work around her? Mann takes us on an unapologetically personal trip, one that at times is so personal to her as to seem to us, the readers, as if we are jumping fences and staring at something we would be better off not confronting. But if she is going to rip the curtains off the past, she wants to make sure we are seated comfortably on a divan in the front room where we can see all the details float by in their gruesome glory.

Read this book. If you want to be an artist, carry it around like your Bible. If you strive to be a better mother or daughter, or a more insightful human being, HOLD STILL needs to be with you at all times. Trying to describe how I feel reading it is testing the very limits of my ability to express myself. Can I just say it’s awesome and let it go at that?

Awe-inspiring and awesome. And inspirational. And compelling. And dark and dangerous. And…just awesome.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on May 14, 2015

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
by Sally Mann

  • Publication Date: April 26, 2016
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Photography
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316247758
  • ISBN-13: 9780316247757