When looking at the work of women who are mothers, in addition to being artists and writers, I am always curious to know how the timeline of motherhood fits into their body of work. Very often, their best work is made after they have become mothers. Whether this is due to the maturity that comes with age or being pushed to work harder, beyond the hard work of motherhood or—most likely—some of both, I am always encouraged to see this progression.
I had a cursory knowledge of the work of Sally Mann, having watched the 2001 PBS Art in the 21st Century segment on her, in the episode Place, and then the 2005 documentary, What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann. However, her rich and powerful memoir, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, has given me a much deeper understanding of her life and work. Hold Still, published this year, is not light reading, as Mann recounts many dark episodes of her family history, including homicide, affairs, and encounters with stalkers. If it were fiction, it would easily fall into the canon of Southern Gothic literature, alongside the work of other great women authors, such as Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Being non-fiction, I found Hold Still to be even more gripping than the work of these authors. Her writing is stunning.
While many of the stories that she relays are grim, she also delves gracefully into her love of life, art, and beauty—the beauty of the landscape of her farm in Virginia in particular. She writes beautifully on the power of place. Furthermore, she goes into detail about the shaping of her artistic process after entering motherhood. While she began her work in photography before her children were born, there were several years between when her first baby was born and her third, that she did not cultivate her art. Yet, she found her way back to it.
The following is an excerpt:
Why it took me so long to find the abundant and untapped artistic wealth within family life, I don’t know. I took a few pictures with the 8 × 10 inch camera when Emmett was a baby, but for years I shot the under-appreciated and extraordinary domestic scenes of any mother’s life with the point-and-shoot…I missed so many opportunities, now tantalizingly fading away in the scrapbooks: the puking, the pets…and the toilet training, the never-ending toilet training.
Maybe at first I didn’t see those things as art because, with young babies in the house, you remove your “photography eyes,” as Linda Connor once called the sensibility that allows ecstatic vision. Maybe it was because the miraculous quotidian (oxymoronic as that phrase may seem) that is part of child rearing must often, for species survival, veil the intensely seeing eye.
I know for sure that the intensely seeing eye was different from the one I used to quarter thousands of school-lunch apples and braid miles of hair through my decades of motherhood. I had to promote this form of special vision and place myself, with deliberate foresight, on a collision course with felicitous, gift-giving Chance.
Hysterically, she goes on to write that it was when her third child was due, in 1985, that she put on her photography eyes again and attempted to document her own labor! She went to the hospital two weeks before the due date and set up her 8 × 10 camera in the birthing room. She writes, “I removed the camera from the tripod, and bent over my balance-destroying belly to make grease-pencil circles on the floor where the tripod legs were. Then I packed up, carried the equipment to the car, and went home to wait it out.”
What a wonderful reminder that, as mothers, we must work with great intention in order to develop and realize a creative vision. It is with this sort of thoughtful enthusiasm that I hope to engage with the world as I go forth in motherhood and art.
In addition to the printed book, which contains many photographs, Hold Still is also available in audio-book form, read by Sally Mann herself.
(Feature image from the cover of Hold Still by Sally Mann.)