Some of you are old enough to remember the moment, in the early 1990s, when the Virginia-based photographer Sally Mann was nationally famous, loved, and in places reviled for her portraits of her young children. In many of the pictures, the children were naked, and some constables of the vice squad considered the photographs erotic (as if all nudity is erotica—and as if any beautiful picture isn’t a little bit erotic). Mann’s new memoir, Hold Still, covers many topics, including her life on the farm, race in the South, those pictures of her children, family secrets, and the secrets to developing film; it may be the best writer’s memoir that I’ve ever read, and Mann’s not even known as a writer.
There are a bucketful of reasons that any serious artist, working in any medium, should read Hold Still, but let’s focus on just one: Mann is refreshingly honest about the role of luck in the creative process. Writers, filmmakers, even painters—they can all pretend that they should get the credit for a great result, as if the final draft was somehow inevitable, given the artist’s robust, undeniable talent. But the photographer must confront those contact sheets (or, if she works with a digital camera, the hundreds of shots on the memory card), and recognize that most of the shots are total shit. Then, out of the dung heap, she finds one keeper, one photograph worth sharing.
“So I soldier on,” Mann writes, “taking one dodo of a picture after another, enticed by just enough promising ones to keep going … Eventually, the law of averages takes pity on me, as it is known to do for my fellow sufferer, the monkey at his typewriter, and doles out a miracle of a good new picture, at last. It brings me relief and reassurance, but no one else sees it for the milestone it is.”
Mann also undermines another false assumption that many have about photographers and photographs: that somehow what she captures is closer to “truth” than what’s depicted by, say, a painter. It’s true that the negative image is less manipulable than what’s on the canvas, which is under the painter’s total control. But the photographer has the power of selection. Mann points to Diane Arbus’s famous photograph of a boy in Central Park, holding a toy hand grenade. The contact sheet shows “eleven pictures on the twelve-image roll of a perfectly normal (if oddly dressed), knobby-kneed little boy standing arms akimbo and occasionally mugging for the camera.” But Arbus chose to publish the twelfth picture, “in which for the briefest split second the exasperated child is show spasmodically clenching his hands, one holding the grenade, and grimacing maniacally.”
Mann notes the unfairness of Arbus’s choice: she chose to immortalize the boy with “the one where he looks like a freak.” To which she adds: “Of course she did. I would have too.”
The lessons seem contradictory, but they are actually complementary. Photographers depend on luck and hard work more than on genius—but to marshal their luck, to make something of what fate has given them, they also depend on cunning. It’s not that they lack skill, but rather that some skills can be discussed only in low voices.