Sally Mann is a legendary photographer whose rich, warm, and classically composed images have left a mark on contemporary portraiture and inspired a generation of young women. Of course, we can't talk about Mann without mentioning that her pics have sparked a furious debate among a (largely male) contingent of cultural critics about the blurry line between fine art photography and child pornography.
Mann stumbled unconsciously into the world of celebrity and controversy in 1992, with a book of 65 black and white photographs featuring her young children in the sparkling light of summer at a rural cabin in the deep south. Fierce, whimsical, and intimate, the black and white portraits of Mann's young family in various states of undress quickly drew fire from conservatives who deemed the images pornographic and accused Mann of eroticizing her own children on a quest for fame and fortune.
Mann's new book Hold Still addresses the ugly and contentious battle over the nude portraits, as well as the time she spent on a "body farm" photographing corpses in various states of decomposition, and her own fascination with the legacy of slavery as expressed by the landscape in the American south.
Mann's deeply personal and unflinchingly honest reflections on her family, her photography, and her brushes with the harsh specter of public condemnation make Hold Still not only an uncommonly compelling memoir, but also an invaluable fond of wisdom. So, creative women of the world, pick up your pencils and take note — there are at least seven standout lessons to take away from from Sally Mann's Hold Still.
Be True to Yourself
From her deeply personal interest in death and decay to her unsettling and evocative landscapes, Mann never shies away from her own idiosyncratic interests. It can be hard to follow your passions when the world is willing to pay for one thing and you're producing something vastly different, but if you ever hope to achieve success verging on true greatness you'll only succeed with integrity. So, take a page out of Mann's book, and follow your interests wherever they may lead you — it's bound to be a worthwhile trip.
Honor Your Work
When the world rises up against you and begins telling you what you and your work are all about, have the common sense to turn off the laptop and tune out the critics. Even while she was suffering through criminal threats to her safety, Mann never doubted her work. When you follow your heart and stay true to yourself, all that's left is to keep believing even when the chorus of haters out there is hauling you over hot coals... and if you find that as tough as I do, a few minutes with Mann's memoir should strengthen your resolve.
Never Back Down
As a modern, professional, creative woman you are bound to encounter critics of both sexes spending their days and nights trying to tear you down. Whether it's your professor telling you that you're never going to make it, your partner who thinks you should just get a real job, or a newspaper with a review of your work that could only generously be described as scathing, there will always be naysayers. Learn to keep your chin and your fists up with brief dip into Mann's world. Ot may not be an easy fight, but it will certainly be a worthwhile one.
It was Winston Churchill who famously said "when you're going through hell, keep going," but it might just be Mann's memoir that brings that particular truism to life. As she puts torrents of abuse, threats, and general disdain in the rearview mirror and coasts towards a life of personal satisfaction, Mann reminds all of us that sometimes the very best thing you can do for your sanity, your creativity and your career is learn to let go.
Whether your family consists of some combination of mothers, fathers, and siblings, roommates, carrier pigeons, work colleagues, or the soulmates you make beautiful music with, Mann's delirious memories of days spent splashing in the river with her family and long nights at home with a loving partner are the perfect reminder that at the end of the day family always comes first.
Forget Your 15 Minutes of Fame
Whether you find it in celebrity or censure, there will come a time when everyone is talking about you... and that time will pass. If you build your whole career around those 15 minutes of fame, you're bound to be disappointed, but if you can take a leaf out of Sally Mann's book and learn to let the ups and the downs roll on by and live for what truly matters in life, you're already a winner, no matter what they say.
As a creative female visionary, you have a world of wisdom to share with the world. Whether you say it with your one woman band or a memoir of your own, your story can inspire those around you. As a struggling artist myself, I remember the first time I learned that I wasn't the only one who paid bills one, two or even three months late, the first time I heard another human describe the writing process as torture, the first time I read about strong women who stood up and soldiered on when the world was telling her to sit down and shut up. Sally Mann's memoir, like her photographs, is iconic in its irrepressibility, and her story is bound to inspire you to share your own, which is only going to make the world a better place.
Image: Getty Images