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Book Review: 'Hold Still' Is Not To Be Missed

Liz Ligouri

This commentary originally aired on May 4, 2015.

Sally Mann’s exhibition of photographs of her children brought her persecution. She was accused of exploitation because of the naked images she produced of them at their remote Virginia home.

But now, in her beguiling memoir Hold Still, she is on display on her own terms. Mann relates her life as an artist, a southerner, a mother, daughter and wife. Scrupulously illustrated with her own photographs, plus journals and mementos she found cleaning out her parents’ attic, the book draws you completely into the world of a thoughtful, articulate, funny and generous woman.

Mann and her husband bought their property in the Shenandoah Valley from her family. Now 60 years old, she spent five years on this masterpiece. In five sections, she examines Southern culture in terms of place and race. She traces the roots of her family and contrasts them to her husband’s constricted and tragic childhood. She cares deeply for her children and we feel the harm done to her by the philistines and censors who drastically misjudged her art work.

She tells of her close relationship with artist Cy Twombly, shares the sagacious advice of her mentors, and takes us through the South she judiciously photographed. She illustrates how difficult it is to come to terms with the history of slavery in the South. Through her new series of photographs of black men, she draws inspiration from Walt Whitman’s poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” in which the realities of a slave auction are described.

If you only read one book this year, Hold Still by Sally Mann should be it.