Internationally renowned photoggrapher Sally Mann stays close to home. Since the early 1980s, Mann has used her farm near Lexington, Virginia, as a home base for taking photographs and painstakingly developing negatives by hand. When the intimate photographs of her children in 1992’s Immediate Family brought her a notoriety she didn’t expect, Mann didn’t give in. Nearly twenty-five years later, she continues to confront themes as knotty as they are universal: the bodies of children and of the dead, the South and its legacy of violence and racial discrimination. In her memoir, Hold Still, which she brings to the Triangle this week, Mann uses her family history to excavate her personality, work ethic, and obsession with photography’s ability to stop time and reveal the timeless.
INDY: Hold Still is an artist’s memoir, but it’s not just about your photography. It’s about a long family history. What drove you to open all those old boxes?
SALLY MANN: Well, there is no choice, because there’s no forward. I mean, you can’t predict the future, but the past is so revelatory. Those boxes held the answer to the origins of my various fascinations, my aesthetic fascinations with the South and family and death. So curiosity drove me to take the box cutter to the tape, but as soon as I was in there I knew it was a treasure trove of personal information.
The book includes a number of “failed” photos. Why did you print those, too?
Actually I’m going to do a whole book of my duds. I want to do a book that has the behind-the-scenes, showing not only how I led up to that picture but the building of the concept as I added different elements. I’ve already started talking to a publisher about it, because people need to see them. Pictures aren’t born out of one momentary puff of inspiration; they’re endlessly, gruelingly slow.
More like narratives than snapshots?
Yes, I think increasingly my work has become more narrative. I used to take pictures just to see what they would look like as photographs. I didn’t have any reason to take them. I just took them because something was beautiful, with a whimsical pleasure in the aesthetics of silver on paper. Gradually I got more interested in the idea of using photography to say something. I’m just fascinated with what it means to be an artist who embraces the South as an artistic theme.
You’ve both written about and photographed the South. Are those processes different?
It’s all a form of inscription. It’s either light on paper or it’s words on paper. Fundamentally, it’s a mark that you’re making, but certainly it would have been very difficult to do with words what I could do with the photographs.
Speaking of the South, do artists have a role to play in political change?
Well, I think so. Haven’t they always? I actually think they have an obligation. As for HB 2, I thought it was interesting that Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina. Those kinds of gestures make a huge difference in raising awareness.
On a lighter note, photography today is different because so many have access to it on cellphones. As someone who’s practiced photography in an entirely different way, what’s your take on selfies?
I have mixed feelings. I love the ease with which you can make pictures now. I take pictures on my iPhone just like everybody else. I don’t participate in any social media, not even Instagram, but I do love how easy it is, and how beautiful, and how detailed and sophisticated the lenses are.
But on the other hand, I wonder if the whole notion of image making is being somehow cheapened by the ease with which images can be made. I’m sure there’s all sorts of apps for vignetting and blurring to make an iPhone picture look like it’s been taken with one of my funky lenses from the 1800s, but it’s never entirely convincing. There’s a level of authenticity that’s unreproducible.
So you’re on tour now?
Yes, I just got back from Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York, and it kicked my butt. I’m not made for this at all. I don’t even like leaving the farm. But we did a little conversation with Charlie Rose at the 92nd Street Y the night before last, and I made him a martini on stage. A very strong and very tall martini, so we had a lot of fun.
Does he take his dirty?
No, he likes it with a twist.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Southern Exposure.”