Wednesday, July 26, 2017

751 (2017 #49). Hold Still

by Sally Mann

I'd never heard of the somewhat-controversial photographer Sally Mann before reading this memoir, but I wish I had.  Besides her remarkable photographs, this woman can write - her command of the English language and vocabulary is impressive!  I can see why it was a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction in 2015.

Not a straight chronological narrative, the book is divided into four parts.  The first,  "Family Ties: The Importance of Place," talks about her early years, her marriage and a little about her husband's (odd) family, the importance of her family's farm, and the controversial photos she took of her young children for her book, Immediate Family - in which the children*, living on a river in Virginia and without air-conditioning, are often naked.

This is followed by parts on her mother, her family's black nanny/maid, and her father.  The sections on her parents delve into her (unusual) family history, which I of course found fascinating.  The part on "Gee-Gee," the maid, delves into (as it's subtitled) "The Matter of Race."  It's very thought-provoking.

There's also quite a bit about death and dying.  Her in-laws were a murder-suicide, and her doctor-father was obsessed with death, killing himself with an overdose of a barbiturate when suffering from brain cancer.  Mann too is obsessed, and one of the most interesting chapters deals with her visit to an anthropological "body farm" to photograph decomposing corpses.

Sadly, after the book's publication, Mann's oldest son, Emmett, committed suicide in June 2016 as a result of schizophrenia, at age 36.  In the book, Mann talks about a terrifying accident where Emmett was hit by a car.  He seemed OK then, but it may have caused a brain injury compounded by two later accidents.

Mann doesn't talk that much about her photographic techniques, but as someone who's worked with film and even large-format cameras, I can appreciate the tedious wet-collodian process and the use of glass negatives.  I'm not sure younger readers who've only worked with digital cameras can truly understand all that is involved in these techniques.

Mann has some other interesting things to say about photography.  In the prologue on page xiii, she describes the "treachery of photography" as "the malignant twin to imperfect memory."  She goes on to say that

...once photographed, whatever you had "really seen" would never be seen by the eye of memory again.  It would forever be cut from the continuum of being,...Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superinmpositions, but I think that is a fallacy:  photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.  As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my "remembering," I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

How true.

The audiobook, read by Mann, is quite enjoyable - she is a good narrator.  She frequently refers to the many photographs and other illustrations in the book as being "on the PDF."  There is a PDF file with the illustrations, but as I borrowed the electronic audiobook from a library, I could only view this PDF through Adobe Digital Editions.  Unfortunately, with the poor quality of the reproductions (many of them were pixallated when enlarged enough for me to really see them), combined with the fact that I listen to audiobooks while commuting and thus can't immediately refer to said PDF - I cannot recommend the audiobook.  Maybe the PDF is of better quality if you actually purchase the audiobook and are able to download it to your computer., but it's pretty poor in the Adobe Digital Editions used when downloading an e-audiobook through Overdrive (the PDF will automatically disappear from Adobe Digital Editions when my loan period expires).

I borrowed both the e-book and a print copy of the book for comparison purposes.  The images are just as bad, if not worse, on the e-book - way too small.  They are a little bigger in the print book (though still not as big as I would like), but this is the format I would recommend.  The images also appear at precisely the time she discusses them in her narrative.

© Amanda Pape - 2017


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