June 1 & 15, 2016 Booklist 11 www.booklistonline.com
would languidly lie on those woven
lawn chairs that left hatch-marks all over
your body, wearing sometimes just a
thin cotton pair of swim trunks, reading
Auden. But the respect that was paid to
the writers and the good times everyone
had when they were there—that is what
I remember. The brimming highballs on
the stroke of five, the late-night crème de
menthe, the sultry laughter, and the very
cool way everyone smoked.
When my parents had writers over, I
would stay up late, listening in or sneaking
back into the kitchen with the help, and
get up early to lick the tiny hardened pools
of liqueur in any glass that didn’t have a
cigarette butt in it. The message was conveyed to me that writers were important
people and great fun to have around.
SEAMAN: Inspired by a visit, with your
parents, in 1969, to Helen and Scott Nearing, who lived off the land in Maine, you
write that you wanted “a life of simplicity, pluck, seclusion, and soul-satisfying,
ecological, sweat-of-the-brow, we’ll-vote-with-our-lives self-sufficiency.” How did this early
vision shape your calling as an artist?
MANN: We adopted that posture partly
out of necessity, being for decades stone-cold broke. Somehow, if we maintained
the pretense that rooting through the
dumpsters behind Kroger for the produce
that was still good enough to eat was ecologically self-sufficient, and hand-cranking
the rollers on the ancient washing machine in the backyard was admirable
resource conservation, not just poverty, it
took the sting out of our circumstances.
But, like the Depression survivors who
save food in their bureau drawers, we are
still in the Nearing fold, killing on our
farm the venison we eat, raising the vegetables, heating our buildings with wood
we cut and split, and living as far from
other humans as our farm allows. This
lifestyle takes an awful lot of time, but it
is not discordant with artistic pursuits;
indeed, they coexist harmoniously.
SEAMAN: How did the telling of your
family’s story evolve into an inquiry into the
story of the South?
MANN: Half my family story, my father’s,
speaks directly to the overarching narrative of the South and embraces many of
the defining characteristics of the southern
population: extreme toughness of character,
hypocrisy, boundless generosity, ignorance,
an embrace of high-flown ideologies based
on honor and religion, love of family, love
of land, deeply confusing racial attitudes,
and so on. It was easy to use the Munger
saga as a microcosm of the greater South.
SEAMAN: You disclose many complex and
painful aspects of your family’s history. You
tell the full story, for the first time, of taking
the photographs of your children that first
appeared in Immediate Family (1992), the
controversy they sparked, and darker consequences. What inspired you to write about
these intimate experiences? And was this
cathartic in any way?
MANN: In the book, I tried to minimize
SEAMAN: Are you writing another book,
the discussion of the so-called controversy
about that body of work. I think the pic-
tures, if they raise any issue at all, raise the
familiar question of the right of the artist
to borrow other people’s lives—whether it’s
James Salter writing about his neighbors in
a completely transparent and recognizable
way or diCorcia photographing strangers
unaware on the street. And, indeed, my
writing about Larry’s parents’ deaths—it’s
intimate, and yes, cathartic and revelatory,
but it’s also invasive and exploitative. Art,
of any variety, is often fraught, and I seem
to have embraced two forms especially so.
or thinking about one?
MANN: I swore I’d never, never, never
ever write another thing. But . . . every so
often I think maybe I’d like to hike the
trail my father took from Burma to Siam
in 1939 and photograph and write about
that. But I’m going to have to get over the
six years that Hold Still has taken out of
my life. I had no idea writing could be so
hard or take so much time.
Jessie at 9, 1991
Gelatin silver print
24 x 20 inches / 61 x 50. 8 cm
Edition of 25
© Sally Mann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.