Writers “have to create the choices to be made” — Photographer (and Author) Sally Mann

Photo by Leslye Davis/The New York Times for the story
Photo by Leslye Davis/The New York Times for the fascinating story “Sally Mann’s Exposure”

Coming up on Thursday, May 21, we’ve got what promises to be an entertaining and illuminating conversation between Ann Patchett and acclaimed American photographer Sally Mann, author of the new memoir Hold Still. If you caught Ann’s last book report here, you know she met Mann at a party in Washington last year, and they’ve been friends ever since.

Our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott, caught up with Mann recently to discuss the process of creating this latest work.

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Your photos and your writing have candor in common. But they’re very different processes, aren’t they — capturing something on film and capturing something in words? How does the creative process feel for you when writing versus when taking photographs?

06mann-cover-master180It’s entirely different, working in the two disciplines . . . and writing is much, much harder. I remember Robert Frank’s description of watching De Kooning as he worked in his studio, which was across a courtyard from Frank’s apartment. De Kooning paced back and forth, his easel set up before him, as he awaited inspiration’s arrival. The sight of his frustration and impatience prompted Frank’s realization that it all had to come from within deKooning, facing that blank canvas. There is no viewfinder through which to isolate your image from the multifarious world, no possibility of a serendipitous string of floating bubbles drifting across the scene at just the perfect, felicitous moment (as happened for Helen Leavitt), no Decisive Moment to choose.

With writing you do have to make the aesthetic choices, but you also have to create the choices to be made.

One of the points you’ve made in your work is that anyone can look at a photo and think what they’re seeing there *is* a memory, and then that image may take the place of a memory in our minds. In fact, the history behind a photo may tell a different story. Could you tell us a bit about one of your long-held assumptions regarding your family history that was disproved or challenged in the writing of this book?

This is so embarrassing, but I’ll tell it anyway. Remember the story about the trip to Florida with my father? Only late in the process did I show the book to my two brothers and in the version they read I stated with calcified certainty that my father and I had gone to the Sebring Races. But no; it was my brother Chris who went with my father to Sebring. It was not me at all. So where did I go with him? I went somewhere with him, because I remember the policeman and the race to the state border and the little confab after. I still think it was Florida, and I remember the lizards and the motel and the greasy smell of the fuel on the track, but it wasn’t Sebring.

Then I began to question everything! What if I had so wanted to go to Sebring with Daddy and he had chosen Chris and I had never gone at all? There are no pictures of me, after all, on the roll of film….

It’s just too confounding and Nabokovian for me to explore. When you begin to acknowledge memory’s manifold treacheries you’re seriously down a deep rabbit hole.

Did you find anything when digging through family photos and notes that made you laugh?

Not much, actually. Plenty to cry about. There’s this, though…

A note written from Mann's son Emmett to a friend in 1988
A note written from Mann’s son Emmett to a friend in 1988

Now that’s an apology. What do you think the combination of images and words gives people that they don’t get with just one or the other? That is, what’s special about a photo+words book that a book of just words or just photos doesn’t have?

Pictures make it easy for the reader, I think, saving them the trouble of imagining the image themselves. But, that said, there are some pictures that even the most overheated imagination couldn’t conjure up (I think and hope there are a few in Hold Still) and then, well, I think it adds a dimension to the whole experience not otherwise possible. Maybe it’s just me, as a visual person, but I always go right to the shiny pages in the center of most books with pictures, even if I have no idea what they are depicting yet.

Yes, I do that too. Now one of our usual questions: favorite thing about being in a real-live bookstore?

As you know, my mother was a passionate bookseller. Her utter devotion to the art (yes, I used that word) of book-selling — or, more exactly the selling of book loving — and her belief that books and reading mattered, mattered more than getting home at suppertime to be there with a casserole between her oven mitts; that devotion was passed to me almost intravenously.

I think the best thing is the perfervid love of booksellers for reading and books and the enthusiasm with which they convey that.

What are you reading these days?

I’m nutty about Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, I read it through once on one of my many insomniac nights and, at 4:25 a.m. when I finished, turned to the first page and started all over again. I was just given Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen and hope after that to catch up with Marilynne Robinson’s latest, Lila.

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frist-logoMeet Sally Mann when she signs Hold Still and joins Ann Patchett for a conversation at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville on Thursday, May 21, at 6:15 p.m. This event is presented by The Frist along with Salon@615 — a unique partnership among Parnassus Books, the Nashville Public Library, Humanities Tennessee, and the Nashville Public Library Foundation. The event is free to attend, but seats are ticketed. Get yours here.

ISBN-13: 9780316247764
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Little, Brown and Company, 5/2015