The photographer Sally Mann has published ten books of her photography, dominated by a distinctive black-and-white esthetic shaped both in-camera and in the darkroom. Working with large-format and 35mm film, Mann first drew wide acclaim for her emotive and sometimes uncomfortable photographs of young women, notably in At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women and Immediate Family. The latter drew controversy because of her portraits of her children, many of them shown nude at home on their farm in Virginia.
There are more words than photographs in her latest book, Hold Still, which is billed as a “memoir with pictures.” It is quite literally that: a hardcover-bound 9 ¼ x 6-inch book with almost 500 pages of text interspersed with images, some taken by the photographer, others by her friends and family. The photos, embedded within the text, allow Mann an economy of words when discussing her work; by showing the photos, she only needs to say so much. She discusses her process in the darkroom, and offers outtakes from the rolls that produced her most famous photos, shattering many preconceived notions about what they express.
As with much of Mann’s work, Hold Still is structured around her family. Her look back on her life was prompted by an invitation to deliver the prestigious Massey lectures at Harvard University. Looking for inspiration, she perused old boxes in her attic filled with the personal effects of relatives who had passed, hoping to find what she called “a payload of Southern Gothic.” But the book’s greatest achievement is the glimpse it provides into the life of a rural southern artist, raised by a black matron. She describes galloping in the wilderness on the bare back of an Arabian horse, and walking the streets of Lexington, Virginia, with Cy Twombly. Mann has never been shy about discussing her family life, but Hold Still provides us with our closest look to date.
—Matthew Ismael Ruiz
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