Sally Mann on memory and photography

father baby white house of Lawrence Durrell yellow Kalami Corfu 817.JPG
(Corfu, last summer)

“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. 

Because of the many pictures I have of my father, he eludes me completely. In my outrageously disloyal memory he does not exist in three dimensions, or with associated smells or timbre of voice. He exists as a series of pictures. When I think of him, I see his keen, intelligent eyes cast askance at me, his thumb lightly resting on his cleanly shaved chin. And I see his thick forearms, the left impinged upon by the stretchy metal band of the watch I keep here still in my desk drawer, the sleeves of his white cotton shirt rolled to reveal his powerful biceps, his waist trim from an absurdly careful egg-whites-only kind of diet, girded round by the same cracked leather belt he wore for forty years. 

But… here’s the thing. It’s a picture, a photograph I am thinking of. 

I don’t have a memory of the man; I have a memory of a photograph. I rush upstairs to the scrapbooks and there he is. I’ve lost any clear idea of what my father relaly looked like, how he moved, sounded, the him-ness of him. I only have this.”  (Sally Mann, Hold Still, 2015)

quote Sally Mann Hold Still 2015 photography memory father 3.JPG


My father is also dead, dead a long time. What do I remember of him? Not the timbre of his voice; I don’t know how northern his accent was. Not his smell.

I do remember, though, the way he was. Awkward – calm – kind – sometimes angry.

What I think I have from him is ideas and ideals. He liked ordinary places and the people he met there. For example he liked being in hospital, on a ward.

He walked in the extra dimension of the past of the places he went.

(Edwin Abbott Abbott‘s book Flatland depicts a two dimensional world. Its people can’t think what a third dimension would be. Sitting here at our Brussels kitchen table, it is easy for me see the three dimensions. But because of my father I feel like I’m also aware of the fourth dimension, made by the people who lived here before us – the magazine writer and the headhunter, the car dealer, the baronne who wanted the house to be grander than it is.)

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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