Interview with Sally Mann, 2015 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction
(Little, Brown/Hachette Book Group)
Sally Mann’s reputation exploded in the nineties with the publication of her book Immediate Family, which depicted, first with unembellished clarity and then more theatrically, the lives of her children on her Virginia farm. Since then Mann has published 11 books. After Mann was asked to deliver Harvard prestigious Massey Lectures, she turned to the boxes in her attic to figure out what to say, a process that led to her eloquently smart memoir Hold Still. What you learn about Mann in Hold Still is that she is a provocateur in the best possible way. She is whip-smart: Her mind takes in the world in ways both blunt and slant, and her obsessions are keenly felt. Threading through the memoir, which probes family secrets, long-lasting love, horses, raising children, the legacy of slavery in the South, and her father’s art and influence, is an alert curiosity about the world. She is sharp on the slippery role of memory, how photographs obscure it, steal it. We spent a week talking, over email, about everything from how it feels to photograph the dead to her love of endurance horse-racing.
Diane Mehta: In the prologue to Hold Still, you say, “I knew that a tarted-up form of reminiscence wouldn’t do, no matter how aesthetically adroit or merciful.” The book is frank and playful, sometimes fully exposed and other times wonderfully wry. Did you achieve what you set out to do, did you capture “memory’s truth?”
Writing and photography are, at best, coarse-mesh sieves for catching memory’s particles.
Sally Mann: No, I hope I didn’t capture it. “Memory’s truth” is a lie. The phrase comes from a paragraph in Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, in which a character, Saleem, contrasts his vivid memory of a tidal wave in the Sundarbans with the actual facts of that time. Saleem’s fictional version, his memory’s truth, is just as strong as the actual truth of this particular moment, and, as is sometimes the case, more desirable.
In Eric Ormsby’s poem, "Childhood House," he describes the writer's sense of being unmoored from his past after his mother's death. That poem delivers a sledgehammer blow to any delusions of fixity or solidity in memory’s relation to the past. It "flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes all recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters unfairly," Ormsby says. Writing and photography are, at best, coarse-mesh sieves for catching memory’s particles. For me, “memory’s truth” is best likened to that mathematically proven line that draws infinitely nearer its object but never arrives.
DM: You refer to Zola’s idea that memory is elusive: “With each photograph I was forgetting,” you said. What moments between the topics you’ve chronicled do you think about most? Do you wish you photographed them?
SM: I think about so many things, unwritten, un-photographed, much of it as entertaining and complex as what I wrote about in Hold Still. I used to envy writers their technical and temporal freedom: If they want to grab hold of something, they don't need sixty pounds of camera equipment right then and there; they can just shamble to the Olivetti and start typing whenever the Muse checks in. In a way, the writing in Hold Still is my effort to honor the many important moments, and personalities that escaped my camera, ones that, in many cases, like, say, the moment with Gee-Gee—the woman who raised me—at Putney graduation or Cy Twombly laughing at the roses “up against the wall,” are un-capturable except by words.
DM: There was a scandalizing response to the nudity of your children when Immediate Family came out in 1992. How is it different, as you’ve argued, for a woman and a mother than it has been for male artists who have photographed children nude?
SM: The few depictions of children by men, from Balthus to Lucian Freud to Jock Sturges, have been met with consternation and concern and, in the case of Sturges, the threat of legal action. I think my work was treated less harshly because I was a woman and a mother than if I had been a male, even a father. But, all the same, the release of Immediate Family just happened to coincide with a moral panic about the depiction of children and that brought the whole question to the fore. It was unpleasant for a while but, as a country, it would appear we've moved on to other sources of paranoia. I sure wouldn’t wish my particular travail on anyone else, but am pleased we weathered it as well as we did and I’m now delighted to leave that episode to the historians (and the tireless Terry Gross).
DM: You’ve said you were blindsided by the controversy that emerged out of Richard Woodward’s 1992 article about you in the New York Times. It was worsened by debate around the 1990 Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center that included, among its 175 photographs, five photographs of men in sadomasochistic poses and two of children with their genitals exposed, provoking widespread discussion about what constituted obscenity in art. Is there obscenity in art?
SM: I’m not qualified to comment on the legal application of the word “obscenity,” being more in the camp of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said, in 1964, “I know it when I see it.” But I know for sure its moral meaning is debased when demagogues, who think nothing of bombing hospitals or clear-cutting rainforests, presume to apply it to pictures.
DM: Tell me about the difference between a photograph of a person and the person being photographed. Why do viewers want to overlap the two?
SM: There’s a fundamental urge to equate the man-made image with its real-world referent, which probably goes back to shamanistic efforts to control a frightening environment: Be nice to the rain god's effigy and maybe the rains will come. But I am not so far removed from that impulse and remain troubled by the relationship between the depiction and the reality, or the perceived reality.
DM: Can you talk about your influences? In Hold Still, you mention Wynn Bullock, W. Eugene Smith, Lewis Carroll, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Norman Sieff.
SM: There are 100 more, and from all disciplines. I’m a magpie image-gatherer. As we say at auctions, items too numerous to mention: literature (Whitman, Rilke, Faulkner, Proust), a picture clipped from a newspaper of a firefighter trying to resuscitate a child, an Odetta song about a woman slipping a chained man some corn bread, the sight of a dog crazed with pain by the side of the interstate, Larry drifting in the current below the rapids at the cabin, the sombrero on Cy’s bookshelf, a ransom letter made from cut-out letters from a newspaper, Ezra Pound’s Canto 81, almost any poem by Sharon Olds or W.S. Merwin.
DM: What interested you in 19th century photography and why do you prefer it?
SM: Cataloging the Michael Miley (1841-1918) archive at Washington and Lee University hooked me on the nineteenth-century photographic idiom: I printed thousands of his glass negatives, many of them taken literally in my backyard, and grew to love the odd juxtaposition of specificity and mystery. But do I prefer it? Not always. I’ve certainly seen some contemporary work that gives me a similar frisson.
DM: You’ve said, “When shooting with collodion, I wasn’t just snapping a picture. I was fashioning, with fetishistic ceremony, an object whose ragged black edges gave it the appearance of having been torn from time itself.” Why is the wet-plate collodion process, with what you’ve called its freedom of expression and the satisfaction of the ceremonial process, perfect for what you call the “nostalgia-drenched deep South?”
SM: I’m inclined to label as "holistic" those old-time, folksy, soulful, artisanal processes that slicker technologies have displaced. There’s a correspondingly rich theoretical discourse asserting the superiority of that holistic process. But, for me these older processes are simply more congenial for a whole host of personal reasons, not least their openness to accident and undirected distortion. Obviously there are brilliant photographers working in all media, and far be it for me to preach a single method for artistically exploring the South, which remains for all of us a fascinating, paradoxical, infinitely inspiring place.
DM: You’ve talked about making art a kind of childcare. Included in your 1984 family portraits series is “Damaged Child,” a photograph of your daughter Jessie swollen with gnat bites. Your shots gradually became more stylized as you added props and created more elaborately conceived portraits of your children’s lives. What did that transition feel like?
SM: That 1984 photograph of Jessie marked the starting point of the Immediate Family series, which began, as you say, simply by documenting the everyday joys and woes of childrearing: playtime, bloody noses, wet beds. The element of theatricality was a natural progression, effected with the collaboration of the increasingly sophisticated kids who were themselves using role-play as a means of trying out the world.
DM: You cite as influences Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, about sharecroppers in the Deep South, and the Steichen-curated 1955 MOMA exhibit The Family of Man. What is it about these that so affected you?
SM: Those are among the foundational texts, if you will, of my particular aesthetic. They somehow spoke to me both on the deepest, most universal level of human compassion and, as well, depicted the unforgettable everyday scenes I saw from the passenger window as I drove with my father on his house calls.
DM: You’re currently photographing African-American men whose ancestors were slaves. What drives your fascination for Emmett Till and what impact has this had on this series?
SM: Till's murder, which somehow lodged deeply in my young brain, and the unreformed aspects of Southern society which it represents, must necessarily preoccupy any non-Neanderthal Southerner, artistic or not.
DM: Your father had a huge influence on you; he even gave you your first Leica. What skills did you take from his renegade, artistic sensibility, and how do you see them in your work?
SM: I’ve dedicated a quarter of my book to discussing this man and his influence on me, but the thrust of it is that, among other things, I absorbed my father’s fascination with Death, which he regarded without fear or loathing but as a kind of awkward, late-arriving guest at life's banquet who has amazing stories to tell to anyone who can listen. He listened, and I hope to be doing the same. And, more than that, I think I learned to not turn into that boatman he thought himself to be, yearning, as I say in Hold Still, to go with the current of desire (his largely unrealized passion for art and literature) but rowing toward another destiny (his career as a physician).
DM: I’m fascinated by the shots you took of bodies decomposing naturally at the Tennessee Body Farm, published in What Remains. How did you feel about doing this work, and was it in any way an evolution or response to the evocative, dreamier imagery of Deep South?
SM: It was a natural segue from photographing the blood, sweat and tear-soaked soil of the Deep South, then the Civil War battlefields, to working at the Body Farm. In all cases the landscape was death-inflected, but, oh my, did the Body Farm make the carnage of the Civil War easily imaginable for me. No cinematic imagery can prepare you for the olfactory and tactile and visible assault on the senses at death’s own acreage. But just as at the battlefields, here the fundamental opposites of human experience—death and life—were brought together. Like the battlefields, like the Delta, death is the fatal yet fertile mother: What devours also creates.
DM: You’ve pointed out that few sister photographers have appraised and studied a man’s body the way you have with your husband Larry Mann, in the ongoing series Marital Trust and in Proud Flesh. You said: “I joined the thinly populated group of women who have looked unflinchingly at men, and who frequently have been punished for doing so.” How does your female gaze differ from the male gaze that we are so used to?
SM: I’m not sure it's possible to make comparisons on the basis of two such unequal datasets. Walk in to any museum and you find room after room filled with images of women as appraised, desired and judged by men. This is the civilization we've all grown up in. The answering voices of women are, as yet, barely audible. It's difficult to contrast the female with the male gaze when the latter has such an advantage in cultural saturation.
But I’m working to remedy that. The act of looking appraisingly at a man—making eye contact on the street, asking to photograph him, studying his body—has always been a brazen venture for a woman. For a man, these acts are commonplace, even expected. But it has been especially difficult to photograph this man I love with the same degree of calculation and unconcern that I have seen reflected in the parallel work of so many male artists. It is a testament to Larry’s tremendous dignity and strength that he allowed me to take the kind of truly candid pictures that others might find awkward or even shaming.
DM: How do you manage and reconcile this power and responsibility for photographing your husband, even as you say muscular dystrophy and age has ravaged his body? How does loving him affect the photographer-subject relationship?
SM: Photographing what I love is second nature to me, so my work with Larry continues a long-practiced habit. His trust and patience, and absolute lack of insecurity, continue to amaze me--- remember the distinction that Richard Avedon made between the professionals and the innocents? Let’s hope that Larry won’t some day wake up and realize he was an innocent. Joking aside, we have a pretty clear understanding, not that dissimilar to the one I had with the kids: He and they have all believed strongly enough in the work to make their risks worth taking. Of course it’s also more interesting than that; they learned the difference between being a subject and being oneself, and the complicated, intimate relationship between the two.
DM: Given your love for horses and endurance riding, and the 2006 riding accident that broke a vertebra in your back, why haven’t you done a book exclusively on photographing horses?
SM: When I ride, especially the fast-flowing-as-one with the galloping horse on the mountain trails—not to be overly poetic but, yes, it does happen like that—I feel a freedom like no other. It’s basic and primitive and in no way relates to the life of my mind or of my aesthetic sensibility. I keep the two parts of my life completely separate.
DM: Do you feel you have truly captured yourself in any of your self-portraits?
Diane Mehta’s essays, articles, and poems are in the Paris Review Daily, The Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, The Believer, BOMB, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, Fast Company, and the New York Times. She has a small book about poetry and is writing a novel about a mixed-race Jewish-Jain couple set in 1946 Bombay. Twitter: @DianeMehta