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Find more The Booklist Carnegie Medal Interview, Nonfiction
A world-renowned photographer from Virginia, Sally Mann is best known for her exquisite and expressive black-and-white images of her children, southern landscapes, battlefields, and lyrical inquiries into decay and death. Named “America’s Best Photographer” by Time in 2001, she has many awards to her credit—among them, grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Mann’s work has been published in an array of celebrated books, including Immediate Family (1992), What Remains (2003), Deep South (2005), and The Flesh and the Spirit (2010). Her stunningly forthright, lushly textured, and deeply shadowed memoir, Hold Still (2015), is a critically acclaimed best-seller, a National Book Award finalist, and winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.
People who know your photographs may be surprised to learn that writing was your first artistic calling. What drew you to writing as a girl?
MANN: Probably loneliness. Mowgli-like days spent in the company of another species. Little Home on the Prairie isolation. Dorothy’s sense of bewilderment and displacement whenever I had to emerge from the brush and go with my mother to the store. Reading, being read to, was the only real exposure I had to other lives and ideas.
I had such a rich life of the mind and the imagination (remember: no television, ever) and found that as I read words, I formed pictures. The two endeavors, reading/writing and taking pictures, were bound together from the earliest days.
How does your strong visual sense influence your writing? And, vice versa, how
has your love of language and storytelling shaped your photography?
MANN: Not only do I form images, often detailed, rich and darkly gothic, to accompany what I am reading, but I sometimes do the opposite: I see something I want to photograph, and while I am setting up the camera, I am composing a descriptive narrative of the scene in my mind, like so:
The child is tentative but determined as she stands on the prow of rock pretty damn far above the river. She has probably been goaded or teased on the way up to her perch there, but she damn well isn’t going to show the raw fear that exists within her, and she for sure isn’t going to ignominiously backtrack into the taunts. It’s late in the afternoon and a dark sky is ominously piling up the storm clouds upriver. This is the kind of sky that people die under in books, she thinks. The boys, Emmett and Amar and Daniel, are making little eeeeeeeks and baby whines and as they laugh, she rises with all the dignity she can muster, stretches her fingers out to the side, feeling the water from her arms dripping from the tips of her fingers, and proudly, serenely raises her chin.
Your small Virginia town, Lexington, was home or magnet or refuge to writers, including Reynolds Price and Eudora Welty. Did their presence influence you?
MANN: Not the writers themselves, or at least not as writers, because I was too young and ignorant to know who they were or to converse with them. Although I spent a lot of my childhood spying on Reynolds Price, whom I thought was the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen. When he would visit Jim Boatwright, who lived in a cottage on the property, Reynolds would languidly lie on those woven lawn chairs that left hatch-marks all over your body, wearing sometimes just a thin cotton pair of swim trunks, reading Auden. But the respect that was paid to the writers and the good times everyone had when they were there—that is what I remember. The brimming highballs on the stroke of five, the late-night crème de menthe, the sultry laughter, and the very cool way everyone smoked.
When my parents had writers over, I would stay up late, listening in or sneaking back into the kitchen with the help, and get up early to lick the tiny hardened pools of liqueur in any glass that didn’t have a cigarette butt in it. The message was conveyed to me that writers were important people and great fun to have around.
Inspired by a visit, with your parents, in 1969, to Helen and Scott Nearing, who lived off the land in Maine, you write that you wanted “a life of simplicity, pluck, seclusion, and soul-satisfying, ecological, sweat-of-the-brow, we’ll-vote-with-our-lives self-sufficiency.” How did this early vision shape your calling as an artist?
MANN: We adopted that posture partly out of necessity, being for decades stone-cold broke. Somehow, if we maintained the pretense that rooting through the dumpsters behind Kroger for the produce that was still good enough to eat was ecologically self-sufficient, and hand-cranking the rollers on the ancient washing machine in the backyard was admirable resource conservation, not just poverty, it took the sting out of our circumstances. But, like the Depression survivors who save food in their bureau drawers, we are still in the Nearing fold, killing on our farm the venison we eat, raising the vegetables, heating our buildings with wood we cut and split, and living as far from other humans as our farm allows. This lifestyle takes an awful lot of time, but it is not discordant with artistic pursuits; indeed, they coexist harmoniously.
How did the telling of your family’s story evolve into an inquiry into the story of the South?
MANN: Half my family story, my father’s, speaks directly to the overarching narrative of the South and embraces many of the defining characteristics of the southern population: extreme toughness of character, hypocrisy, boundless generosity, ignorance, an embrace of high-flown ideologies based on honor and religion, love of family, love of land, deeply confusing racial attitudes, and so on. It was easy to use the Munger saga as a microcosm of the greater South.
You disclose many complex and painful aspects of your family’s history. You tell the full story, for the first time, of taking the photographs of your children that first appeared in Immediate Family (1992), the controversy they sparked, and darker consequences. What inspired you to write about these intimate experiences? And was this cathartic in any way?
MANN: In the book, I tried to minimize the discussion of the so-called controversy about that body of work. I think the pictures, if they raise any issue at all, raise the familiar question of the right of the artist to borrow other people’s lives—whether it’s James Salter writing about his neighbors in a completely transparent and recognizable way or diCorcia photographing strangers unaware on the street. And, indeed, my writing about Larry’s parents’ deaths—it’s intimate, and yes, cathartic and revelatory, but it’s also invasive and exploitative. Art, of any variety, is often fraught, and I seem to have embraced two forms especially so.
Are you writing another book, or thinking about one?
MANN: I swore I’d never, never, never ever write another thing. But . . . every so often I think maybe I’d like to hike the trail my father took from Burma to Siam in 1939 and photograph and write about that. But I’m going to have to get over the six years that Hold Still has taken out of my life. I had no idea writing could be so hard or take so much time.
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