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HOLD STILL / KEEP MOVING: Women Photographers’ Memoirs

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann, Little, Brown and Company, 2015

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario, Penguin Press, 2015 —

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Early in my reading of photographer Sally Mann’s recently published memoir, Hold Still, I thought I wasn’t going to like her, this woman who is pleased to write of herself that she sometimes doesn’t leave her rural home for five weeks, not even to go to the grocery store, appearing not to realize that her bohemian abstention from ordinary lives is, in fact, privilege.

I confess though that I have a low tolerance for privilege, and an even lower one for seemingly willful ignorance of it. As I began to read Hold Still, her book lit little crackly twigs under my feet, tied as they are to the stake of my own unprivileged family, as well as the stake I have in my own life, created not from the velvet of Virginia upper class mores, but from scratch.

Then again, we all bring our likes and dislikes, our personal histories, to the table of the page. Soon, past and privilege drop away, yielding to the advance of an artist’s vision. As I read on, I discovered that Mann’s book, while not always nourishing, is capacious, discursive, idiosyncratic, and often imbued with her highly original writing; consider her description of a Southern accent with its “gentle mitigation of the consonants.” Most striking to me is what she calls the treachery of photography. She refuses the conventional idea that a photograph serves as a way to remember what is gone, believing instead that it wipes away the past, replacing it not with the complex sensorium of memory but rather with only an image, “forever cut from the continuum of being, a mere sliver, a slight, translucent paring from the fat life of time.”

To Mann, photographs “supplant and corrupt the past,” a belief that creates the fundamental tension of her artistic life, a photographer haunted by family, history and landscape, paying homage to the past even as she is diluting or erasing it.

Not so Lindsey Addario, another photographer who has recently published a compelling memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life, thereby adding to the tiny stock of photographers’ and most especially female photographers’ book-length reflections on their life and work. Addario is firmly rooted in the present; given her occupation as a war photographer there is nowhere else for her to be. She is traveling as fast and as urgently as she can to reach the front lines of conflict. “I must have logged 100,000 miles in a few months,” she writes matter-of-factly.

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Aware of the pitfall of her profession, of war photographers who have succumbed to depression at what they’ve witnessed, Addario knows that she cannot afford Mann’s porousness, so necessary to Mann as her experience sifts through her to emerge as images. Instead, Addario keeps a barrier, equally necessary to her, “between worlds . . .I turned off the trauma and sadness of my work. . . I never forgot what I had witnessed, and I talked often of my experiences, but I didn’t let them overwhelm my personal life.” The alternating current of boundary and porosity in these two memoirs becomes an allegory, writ in extremis, about the way artists negotiate between what is denied entrance and what is invited in.

In her famous essay, “Looking at War,” first published in The New Yorker in 2002, Susan Sontag asked of war photography, “What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation? To make us feel “bad”; that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn?” As an aside, I’m not at all sure that it’s useful to ask what the point is of any artistic endeavor. That said, Sontag does answer her own question: “What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness.”

Addario, however, asks us to look at her images of war and its surround from a different perspective, one that is documentary but not specifically political. Instead, her photographs function as implicit indictments of what is not acceptable, what is fundamentally inhumane. Let us look, she asks of a viewer, so that we may feel it is not right for one human being to do this to another. Her images — an Iraqi man walking among rows of bodies taken from a mass grave, his hand extended in a beautifully ambiguous gesture, to keep his balance or to bless – these photographs come to us not as a point but as a problematic; not as a sharpened end but as a suffused morality.

The fundamental tension for Addario is the paradox of beauty; her images are ravishing. “Trying to convey beauty in war,” she writes, “was a technique to try to prevent the reader from looking away or turning the page in response to something horrible.” In Addario’s implicit answer to Sontag, she writes that she wants people “to linger, to ask questions.”

Mann too, while seeming to lay down her own imagistic terms, is asking us to linger, to ask questions. While there’s little point in revisiting the warmed-over controversy around whether Mann’s photographs of her children are pornographic or not, I’m not entirely comfortable with the contents of her imagination when pressed upon her children, no matter how much she insists on their voluntary participation, their understanding of the difference between life and photography. Children don’t choose the dramas in which they are placed, at least not when one is asked to do so by one’s mother. Photography might wipe out memory, at least in Mann’s formulation, but to act in a photograph is to make a memory — one that a child didn’t sign up for.

However, to the extent that our fellow creaturely sense is awakened, Addario’s photographs are not only about war, Mann’s not only about children. Both photographers, in their work and in their memoirs, set in motion a profound dialogue about doing or not doing harm. Is it enough to make a viewer feel that she will never look at something–anything– the same way again? I think so. Supplanting (if not necessarily corrupting) the past may be the sine qua non of creation.

Sally Mann visits the Body Farm, an experiment at  University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility in which bodies are left in a field, without burial, to decompose and become part of the soil, serving as hosts to future growth. Mann photographs this strewn field of corpses yielding images that remind one of Matthew Brady’s pictures of bodies on the battlefield of Gettysburg. Lynsey Addario, embedded in a platoon in Afghanistan, caught in an ambush, briefly takes shelter behind a log; two scouts walk toward her weeping, between them a body bag in which lies, not one among thousands, but a specific man known to all of them, a life cared about now ended. She too takes a photograph.

The cover of Mann’s book shows a child, Mann herself, jumping in the air. But neither her memoir nor Addario’s is finally about holding still or being in motion. “Sally, are you receiving?” These words are spoken by Mann’s neighbor in Virginia, the artist Cy Twombly, as he ambles down a slope to pay a call. The contribution of these memoirs is to illuminate a shared receptivity, an internal and external movement that is always dangerous and exalting whether the photographer is conventionally thought of as domestic or as globe-trotting. These are artists whose images go beyond elegy, beyond witness, beyond this viewer’s opinion or critique, to dare to reply to death, that ultimate act of holding still.

 

Janet Sternburg’s new memoir is WHITE MATTER: A Memoir of Family and Medicine (Hawthorne Books, September, 2015), the second after PHANTOM LIMB: A Meditation on Memory, at the intersection of personal life and neurology. janetsternburg.com

Comments

  1. my dearest J, you reviewed sally and lynsey from the point of view of an artist who pays attention when truth speaks from an image. love this piece.
    mina

  2. Thanks for the beautiful words. Am putting the books on my list!

  3. Thank you for these two astute reviews and offering more about women and photography. It’s wonderful to hear your take and in such lively writing! Both books intrigue me… more to ponder about these intersections ahead.

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