Thursday, July 2, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt eleven)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

Nothing is deader, or more ungainly, than a dead body. Dead weight is right. The pitch of the hill steepened, and the men were stumbling and sobbing behind us. Periodically Shelby’s legs would be ripped out of our arms as one of the other of the men lost his grip, both emotionally and physically. Shelby’s shoulder would sag heavily to the ground, the man supposed to be supporting it weeping against the chest sutures. Shelby had been allotted a berth alongside the fence at the very top of the hill and as we approached it the two friends, hooking a baseball cap on the bouncing testicles for the last time, lowered their end of Shelby and peeled off into the woods, leaving us holding the legs. Sighing, we reversed ends and each of us wrapped our arms around Shelby’s clammy torso in an unsettlingly intimate embrace. At the count of three, we hefted him upright, his naked body pressed against us, and man-hauled him to his weedy little plot. At a second count of three, we both released and Shelby folded to the ground, his head making a sickening melon-y sound.



Wednesday, July 1, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt ten)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

The trip to Florida happened long before I even had my learner’s permit, and we made it in his brand-new car, a creamy white Aston Martin DB-4. He had picked it up in England along with an orange marmalade appeasement for my irate mother and a blue Pringle cashmere sweater for me that was so soft it invited my grade school teachers to pet me like an animal.

The purchase of the Aston caused a significant disruption in my parents’ marriage, which a friend once likened to a building in which a crucial foundation stone was really two powerful magnets with the wrong ends pressed together, the marital edifice held together by the pressure of the surrounding brickwork: the family, the land. My frugal mother objected to the expense, the ostentation, and the unilateral nature of the purchase, and my father’s response to her upset was to ignore it. When my mother pressed home to him the financial consequences of buying such a car, his solution was to noisily replace the two measured ounces of good whiskey he drank every evening with tall glasses of weak iced tea. By his arithmetic if he did that for the rest of his statistically probable life, he would pay for his half of the car. My mother gave up.



Tuesday, June 30, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt nine)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

His drawling voice, his wrinkled face, the gap between the front teeth—Cy is right here. Cy, who hated to be photographed, is still vivid in my memory. I hardly have any pictures of him, although he gave me this one that Robert Rauschenberg made of him at Black Mountain College, and showed me where he wanted it placed on my desk.

I am convinced that the reason I can remember him so clearly and in such detail is because I have so few pictures of him. That’s unusual in itself, in this era of ubiquitous camera phones, but imagine a time a mere 170 years ago, when there was no mechanical way to preserve a face, an important experience, or the beauty of the natural world.

Before the invention of photography, significant moments in the flow of our lives would be like rocks placed in a stream: impediments that demonstrated but didn’t diminish the volume of the flow and around which accrued the debris of memory, rich in sight, smell, taste, and sound. No snapshot can do what the attractive mnemonic impediment can: when we outsource that work to the camera, our ability to remember is diminished and what memories we have are impoverished.



Monday, June 29, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt eight)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art. But as Ted Orland and David Bayles point out in their book Art and Fear, “ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

The early success I enjoyed in this new project gave me a false sense that not only would the good pictures come easily, but also that I understood my reasons for doing them in the first place. In general, I am past taking pictures for the sake of seeing how things look in a photograph, although sometimes, for fun, I still do that. These days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept. This work with black men, though inchoate and not yet even printed, seems to be a little bit of both.



Sunday, June 28, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt seven)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

I had been undeviatingly photographing the kids since 1985, remarking once to a friend that my passion for those pictures was so intense and blinkered that I could drive right past the moonrise at Hernandez that so dazzled Ansel Adams if I was on the way to get a good picture of the kids. But on that July day, I was overcome with farm lust, wordless and undeniable. Driving with the camera from the cool river to the sweltering upper fields, we followed the animal pathways through the grass, stopping to make an occasional picture.

At the time, I didn’t care whether the pictures I was taking were any good, or how I was going to inscribe my deep love of place, this time with photography, in a way that could begin to explain it. I hadn’t made a picture in the landscape for at least a decade, although recently I had found myself swiveling the camera away from the kids just to watch the randomly edited tableaux pass across the milky rectangle of ground glass. Often a beautiful landscape would surprise me there, ambushing me with the allure of its self-sufficiency.



Saturday, June 27, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt six)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

The modest wedding ceremony, which, according to the newspaper accounts, “surprised their many friends,” was held on June 12, 1909, at Saranac Lake, New York.

Five months later Julie Keller Evans died of tuberculosis in his arms.

Their honeymoon and married life together, it turns out, had been spent at a sanatorium. She died on her twenty-ninth birthday. On that page of her daily calendar, carefully saved by my grieving grandfather, she noted in her unwavering handwriting, “I don’t have any more birthdays.”



Friday, June 26, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt five)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

It’s not easy working in the South. Playing on a southern pronunciation of “Beaux-Arts,” H. L. Mencken once dismissed the South as “the Sahara of the Bozart,” and he had a point. Urban museums have little interest in artists who live down here or those who don’t live in a city. We lack a collector base, and enjoy little support or artistic fellowship. As my friend Billy Dunlap remarked the other day, the rest of the world seems to love us only when we act like characters out of a Tennessee Williams play.

Cy would have loved that quip, and I miss not being able to tell him, to hear his snort of merriment. I miss his almost childlike glee at the most elementary human gaffes. Every time we would leave his house and catch a glimpse of the neighboring Reid White house behind the trees, one or the other of us would repeat our favorite line from a story my mother used to tell about the occupant of that house, Mrs. Breasted White. That’s what I swear I remember her saying: “Mrs. Breasted White.” But now, writing that name, it somehow seems highly improbable.