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Controversy stings, strengthens Mann in memoir ‘Hold Still’

“Hold Still” (Little, Brown and Co.), by Sally Mann

American photographer Sally Mann is best known to mainstream audiences for her third book, “Immediate Family,” which stirred controversy in the early 1990s for its inclusion of nude images of her three young children roaming her family’s secluded, Eden-like farm.

In Mann’s illustrated memoir, “Hold Still,” the allegations that she harmed her children by making and publishing the images still sting, but Mann defies expectations to explain herself as a mother or to assure readers that her children turned out OK (she offers no updates except their permission to reprint their images, including some not included in the previous book).

Instead, Mann explains herself as an artist, putting the “family pictures,” as she calls them, into the broader context of her photography exploring the South, an ancestral preoccupation with mortality and her bonds with a landscape still haunted by the legacy of slavery.

She’s more effusive talking about her own idyllic childhood in rural Virginia spent riding horses, driving fast cars and conversing with eccentrics, some of them influential artists and others her own relatives.

She delves deeply into her ancestry, studying snapshots, letters and other keepsakes for themes that emerge later in her own work. As with many snapshots found in anyone’s home, some of Mann’s stories are unflattering and cringe-worthy, but the tour of her family tree is a tour of her creative process.

Mann makes deceptively luminous images with a large-format camera and film negatives that require careful handling and sometimes combustible chemicals. Her prose examines Southern life as closely as her camera lens examines the Southern landscape, and “Hold Still” explains not just her photographic technique but also her resolve to look head-on at things most people would rather not see.

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