The cover image for the June 1 issue of Kirkus Reviews is the photo on the front jacket of photographer Sally Mann’s new memoir Hold Still. Mann was at the heart of a national scandal in the early 1990s over the federal funding of artists who created art that conservative politicians believed the government shouldn’t be funding. On her farm near Lexington, Virginia, Mann took photos of her young children playing while not wearing anything. The controversy now feels like an overwrought bugaboo, but it cast a prolonged shadow over her and her family. Still, Mann writes in Hold Still, she “resoundingly, absolutely…would do it all over knowing what we know now.”
In a year that’s been blessed by startling autobiographies full of revelations (Lucas Mann’s Lord Fear, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock, and Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return, to name a few), Hold Still stands out and not just because Mann’s got a trump card those others can’t match: she’s able to dot her text with her nuanced, haunting photographs. Mann was a writer before she was a photographer, and it shows. Her writing is idiomatic (“I know that my mother tried to raise me properly, but I made her cross as two sticks”), funny, defiant, intellectually insightful, and candidly personal. “To be able to take my pictures I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about,” she writes. “And I must do so with both warm ardor and cool appraisal, with the passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart there must also be a splinter of ice.”
One of the joys of this job is being able to spotlight books and writers I think readers should pay attention to. But I didn’t put the jacket image of Mann’s memoir on our cover just because she’s written the best autobiography published so far this year. In Mann’s typically iconoclastic way, that photo isn’t what you’d expect, which is that a noted photographer like her would put one of her own photos on the front jacket of her memoir. That photo is of her, not by her; Mann’s father took it. I love it for the sense of possibility and lightness it reveals and its testament to improbable flight.
The notion of summer reading is also one of transport, of being taken away by a gifted writer to other places, stories, characters, and ideas. The June 1 issue is packed with suggestions for good summer reads and we’ll be rolling them out on the site in the next few weeks; we hope that a few of them hit home with you.
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief.