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?

The Annual Meeting!

April 2 was the date of the first CBAS annual meeting in the new Essex space. You can see how shiny it is from Anjali‘s picture:

What do CBAS people do when they get together? They eat tasty food! Oh, and make books. Here are the materials:

Aaaannnndddd, here’s a finished product!


Couldn’t make it? (I couldn’t.) See you next year! If you can’t wait that long, stop by a study group or other event.

Guessing Game

Q: What is 234 pages long, with 11 foldout pages containing diagrams of the heavens, written in what appears (even to the most ingenious code-crackers in history) to be gibberish, adorned with pictures of impossible flora and “decidedly unerotic drawings of groups of plump naked women?”

A: The Voynich Manuscript!

Alas, that is all the answer we can provide. But, for more information and a history of the ms, see “Secret Knowledge – or a Hoax?” by Eamon Duffy, New York Review of Books (April 20, 2017).

Safety First

Whether you’ve stabbed yourself in the thumb with an awl, tripped over a matte cutter that you left on the floor (guilty), or suffered a nasty paper cut (OW!), you know that art studios can be hazardous hellholes. However, many of these hazards can and should be avoided.

At a recent CBAS meeting (where, fortunately, the only potential hazard was an unstable coat rack), Judith reminded everyone to keep a first aid kit handy. 

Those who work around chemicals — photographers, painters, ceramicists, etc. — should use particular caution. 

The National Institute of Health and Department of Health and Human Services has compiled a handy list of resources called Keeping Artists Safe.

Be careful out there!


Book Review: The Art of Chinese Calligraphy, by Jean Long

I picked this book up from a shelftop display in the children’s section of the library. While older children (and maybe a few elementary school aged ones) might enjoy this book, it seems to be more for adults who are serious about learning Chinese calligraphy techniques.

I’m not a calligrapher myself, so I’m probably not the best source to report back about this book. But, it is captivating, even for a non-calligrapher. The book is slim, but is comprehensive, covering everything from the origins of  symbols to the intricacies of brush strokes and character composition. There is much Chinese history thrown in as well. Deceptively simple — maybe that’s how it found its way to the children’s shelf.

There are some great photos and illustrations of the materials. Most of what I know about Chinese inks and brushes comes from pictureless fiction, so these visual aids were helpful. While in black and white only, the photographs also show calligraphy on art — ceramics, paintings, tablets, porcelain, fans, metal, silk.

What’s the lesson here? That artists, like everyone else, need to study the past — not only the images, but also the methods, tools, materials, and origins. As a calligraphy bookmark “intended to encourage reading” (p. 38) puts it, “Studying old history helps in the learning of new ideas.”