A journey of self-discovery begins in family archives.
An invitation to deliver the prestigious Massey lectures at Harvard inspired photographer Mann (Sally Mann: Immediate Family, 2014, etc.) to embark on a search for her past, beginning with boxes stored in her family’s attic. She hoped to find “a payload of southern gothic”: juicy details of “deceit and scandal,” including suicides, fortunes made and lost, and even a murder. Her sources did not disappoint her, and she effectively weaves a “tapestry of fact, memory, and family legend” in this candid and engrossing memoir. An incorrigible child, Mann loved to cavort naked on the Virginia farm where she grew up. Her mother, exasperated, turned over her care to Gee-Gee, the loving African-American woman who served as the family’s housekeeper, cook, and nanny. Mann’s rebellion continued throughout high school, where she discovered a passion for writing and photography that channeled her energies. “I existed in a welter of creativity,” she recalls, “—sleepless, anxious, self-doubting, pressing for both perfection and impiety, like some ungodly cross between a hummingbird and a bulldozer.” Married at 18, she continued her creative life at Bennington College and made photography her vocation. For the next several decades, she “virtually lived in the darkroom,” dealing with “some end-of-tether frustrations” in printing her work. She was “blindsided,” she writes, when she was accused of child abuse and exploitation after the publication of Immediate Family (1992), which included nude photographs of her children. Besides revealing portraits of her parents and Gee-Gee, Mann chronicles the sordid murder-suicide of her husband’s parents; a deranged letter-writer later accused Mann and her husband of the crime. Although committed to photography as an art, Mann is troubled by the medium’s “treacheries”—i.e., its power to displace real memories.
Generously illustrated, Mann’s memoir is testimony to photography’s power to evoke tender, lucent portraits of the past.