Book Review: Hold Still

There is nothing better than the thrill of holding a great negative, wet with fixer, up to the light. And, here’s the important thing: it doesn’t even have to be a great negative. You get the same thrill with any negative; with art, as someone once said, most of what you have to do is show up. The hardest part is setting the camera on the tripod, or making the decision to bring the camera out of the car, or just raising the camera to your face, believing, by those actions, that whatever you find before you, whatever you find there, is going to be good. — Sally Mann


When was the last time you traveled through a book, pencil in hand, underlining and note-making? This is how I made the journey through Hold Still by Sally Mann.

The book instantly took me back to my years living in Lexington, Virginia. This book has people and places that are known to anyone who has lived there. My husband worked in the public library that Mann’s mother helped establish. The Maury River, Goshen Pass, and Natural Bridge all make appearances. The two schools, VMI and W&L, figure prominently, as they so often do in a town populated by fewer natives than students and come-heres. The southern sense of place, not to mention the photographer’s sense of place, is strong. Even if you have never visited Lexington, you will get a strong vision of it from Hold Still.

Mann is as completely absorbed with the past as the rest of her hometown is. In a place where one can visit General Lee’s hairbrush or Stonewall Jackson’s (now stuffed) horse, Traveler, it’s easy to get the sense that nothing is really ever over.

Mann, too, can’t seem to let anything from the past go. In some instances this is important — she does not let the mystery of racial history escape her lens, and the effect is powerful. Her stories about growing up with household help could have been a fine book in itself.

But, I had to wonder whether Mann thinks any part of her self is original. Can our every quirk and tendency be traced back to our ancestors? Mann, like Lexington, seems to believe this. In all memoirs, the past and present are necessarily cojoined. To what extent must they be? For Mann, it seems, past and present are two manifestations of the same thing.

This is a photography book, by and about a photographer. While many CBAS members are experts at this, I remain in awe of this hyper-technical art form. Anything more complicated than watercolors and a brush makes me nervous. Thus, I was a bit baffled by parts of Mann’s in-depth discussions about her craft. Yet, these passages were not a deterrent for me, and less Ludditey readers will find them fascinating.

As for the photos themselves, many are well-known Mann pieces. I wish my handheld paperback were physically larger. The photos aren’t as visible in my paperback copy as they would be in a larger art book.

Sally Mann does not shy away from death. On the contrary, she tends to focus on it, bringing it closer than is comfortable, as photographers do with all subjects. By definition, memoirs are never really complete. We learn so much about Mann’s children and other family in this book. What we don’t learn is that her son Emmett died after this book was written. If that is a spoiler or trigger warning, so be it — Mann does such fine work confronting death here. Her father, her dog, a stranger from town who wandered onto her property, all sorts of Southern relics, and decomposing bodies in Tennessee all serve as studies in death.

This being the world, we know more death will come to everyone. What art will spring from Mann’s worst pain of all, the loss of her son, whose birth she photographed?