redux: family pictures

In July, 2015, I was reading Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, and I was thinking about how writers and visual artists make use of their families in their work. I’m writing something now with that in mind, taking strands of my own personal family history and fictional versions of it, trying to make something both new and true and also fabricated. I don’t know the formula for a truly balanced methodology but that’s not going to stop me…


“As ephemeral as our footprints were in the sand along the river, so also were those moments of childhood caught in the photographs. And so will be our family itself, our marriage, the children who enriched it and the love that has carried us through so much. All this will be gone. What we hope will remain are these pictures, telling our brief story.”(Sally Mann, writing in the New York Times about the furor around the publication of her book, Immediate Family, in 1992.)

I’ve begun American photographer Sally Mann’s new book, Hold Still, a memoir, and every page so far has me making a mental note. She is such a congenial writer and I keep thinking, Yes, oh yes — someone who shares my sense of family history (even if hers is much more, well, illustrious than mine), of how a book can include visual elements that so many publishers would be reluctant to include. Unless of course you’re Sally Mann.

And thank goodness she is. I’ve loved her images in the past. I remember the extraordinary flutter of attention when she published Immediate Family, a collection of ravishing photographs of her children alive in the world of their Virginia farm. Some of the images portray the children at play, in the river, on a long wooden porch — and in many of them, the children are naked. As children living in a rural area with a healthy sense of themselves often are. I remember my own children here on our rural property running under sprinklers in summer and rolling in the grass, clothing abandoned. When they became socialized, well, to be honest, once they began school, that carefree joie de vivre evaporated.

I remember criticism of her book coming from surprising sources. Mary Gordon, for example, who responded to one photograph, “The Perfect Tomato”, this way:

“The application of the word ‘tomato’ — sexual slang for a desirable woman — to her daughter insists that we at least consider the child as a potential sexual partner. Not in the future but as she is. The fact that the children are posed by their mother, made to stand still, to hold the pose, belies the idea that these are natural acts — whatever natural may be.”

That photograph, in the Guggenheim Museum , breaks my heart with its beauty. And proves that people see the world the way they want to see the world. It’s innocent or radiant or potentially dangerous — or all of these. Art can make us uncomfortable, I suppose, even as it celebrates the layers of what it means to be a child balanced on a cluttered table, with tomatoes just picked arranged on its surface, in a shaft of ethereal light, perhaps about to fall. It’s what is. I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.

So the book will be my companion over the next week. And companions often provoke one to look back, to remember, as part of the series of responses they elicit from you as you accompany them through their own memory grove. In my first book of essays, Red Laredo Boots, I wrote about my family. They were young and they were at the centre of my daily life. I also wrote about my extended (and inherited) family. There’s an essay in that book, “The Tool Box”, which meditates on family history by itemizing the contents of a wooden box John had been given by his mother. The box was a gift to his father from his paternal grandfather when John’s parents emigrated to Canada in 1953. We received it in the mid-1990s. I found it so potent, somehow. That a grandfather who John had hardly known would make a box for a son — John’s father — without any sort of building desire or ability; yet John and I built our own house. The box seemed (in the way objects can) to be emblematic of that mystery. John’s mother was horrified that I would write about such a thing and she was hugely offended by the essay. Although she had been separated from John’s father for decades when my book came out, she felt I had overstepped my privilege as her daughter-in-law by writing an essay which referred to what she called “her story”. We were estranged for several years and came to a kind of impersonal truce eventually. I realized then how dangerous personal material could be — not just to the writer who plunged into it but to those who felt a sense of ownership. Those boundaries, the borders — they are fluid of course and about as capricious as anything can be. But I’ve always felt I needed to try to figure them out. Would I intrude on territory others felt was off-limits or somehow sacred? Yes. Was I willing to take the chance that I might offend members of my family — immediate or extended? Well, I never begin a piece of writing with that intention. But I recognize the potential in almost everything I do. In my case, it’s not photographing my children in all their naked beauty — not for their nakedness alone but for the moment when the image transcends the ordinary to become something else: “The fact is that these are not my children; they are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle tension, mood, wind and shade. These are not my children at all; these are children in a photograph.” Which is so sensible somehow and gets to the heart of the artistic impulse. Mine is to examine the multiplicity of memory and my — our — relationship to it. What might be made of that, in all honesty but also in service to artifice itself.

On the wall above my desk is a drawing my daughter Angelica made when she was about six. I believe (and this is the way I remember it) that she gave it to me as an apology for something she’d done or said. It is something I cherish — and parsing it from this day, 24 years later, is interesting: she’s under a rain-cloud and I’m under the sun. She’s small. I’m large and extravagant in what I remember as my party-dress from those days  — a two piece Moroccan confection with beads along the shoulders and the hem of the skirt which clicked deliciously when I walked. Her blond hair. My red hair. (I’m not a red-head but maybe that was the time I tried the Body Shop’s henna rinse. A mistake but here it is commemorated on a piece of paper from the recycling box. Remember the old printer paper from the dot-matrix printers where you had to tear off the perforated edges which held the paper in place on the printer?) I have no hands — mothers could perform magic in those days. I’m smiling. She’s grimacing. My name’s in bold black and hers (note the lower-case a) is scanty (though it comes first!). We are pretty much the same size now and she is about as accomplished as a young woman can be. Whatever happened to occasion this drawing makes me grateful for the discords in families because I have the record of it in all its childish iconography. One day I’ll write about it. Or wait. Maybe I just have.

after the argumentSome of us write about our families because they continue to beguile us, to confuse us, to provide mysterious paths to the past and to the future. Sometimes when I give public readings, people ask if my children mind being present in my work. Sometimes they do, I think. But theirs — ours — is the world I inhabit. It’s our brief story. Or part of it at least.

“I certainly knew that the context of place was important in my family pictures, but I also knew that I was creating work in which critical and emotional perception can easily shift.” That’s Sally Mann again and all I can say is that I am so looking forward to the rest of this book.

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