For Memories’ Sake
Ashley Maynor started out to make a film about her grandmother’s obsessive photography habit. But eight years after she finished the film, what she ended up with is a story that healed old wounds in her Tennessee family and bridged the chasm that always opens when a small-town Southern kid decides she has to leave.
Film by Ashley Maynor | Photographs by Angela Singer | Interview by Chuck Reece
There are two kinds of people in this world — those perfectly content to spend their lives exactly where they grew up and those who know they must leave, who feel in their bones the need to know what lies beyond the home place.
Ashley Maynor is one of the latter.
“I was a Southern child who always wanted to leave,” she says. “I wanted to get far, far away, starting at an early age.”
The place she wanted to leave was Cheatham County, Tennessee, west of Nashville — and a family anchored by her grandmother, Angela Singer, the sort of woman most folks in a small Southern town would affectionately call “a character.” Singer’s particular eccentricity is this: She goes nowhere without a camera.
These days, we all go everywhere with a camera in our pockets. But Angie Singer was doing that 40 years ago, and she has never stopped. Over four decades, she has shot at least a dozen photographs daily — amassing an archive of her life in Cheatham County that now extends well beyond 150,000 photographs.
That trove of photographs brought Maynor home 10 years ago to make the film, “For Memories’ Sake,” that is the centerpiece of this story. The film is arresting enough by itself. But there is more to learn in a conversation with Maynor, who tells us how the act of making the film somehow bridged the divide between her — the one who left — and her family, those she left behind.
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Chuck Reece: Which one of Angie's nine children is your parent?
Ashley Maynor: I am the child of her oldest. That's my mom, Ramona. She's the oldest of the nine.
Chuck Reece: Were you Angie’s first grandchild?
Ashley Maynor: I am the second grandchild. My mom was 20 when she had me. She was 17 when she was pregnant with my sister.
Chuck Reece: When did you first start talking to Angie about photography? How to make pictures, that type of thing?
Ashley Maynor: I didn't really care about it until I was a teenager. When I was a kid, it was just this thing in the background that she did. It was actually annoying. I hate getting my picture taken to this day — in part because it was constant. I started to get interested when I was a teenager. I was a Southern child who always wanted to leave. I wanted to get far, far away, starting at an early age. As a teenager, I found out about a sister-city program that Nashville had with this northern French town (Caen). And I had gotten interested in France because French was the only language offered in my middle school. I decided I wanted to go over. No one in my family had a passport. No one was there to guide me. But I decided I wanted to do this. And Angie was pretty supportive, actually. She was part of the ladies' council at church, and she helped me talk to the priest, and they took up a collection plate, and I did a bake sale with the ladies' council to fund my trip. And Angie started teaching me how to use cameras because I was going on this trip.
Chuck Reece: Did she send you over there with one of her cameras?
Ashley Maynor: She sent me over with a bunch of film. The camera came from a police officer's yard sale. And I had no idea how to use an SLR camera. Angie taught me. Some of that is in the film. It was a very inexact science since she knew how to do it by listening to the shutter. She didn't really know what f-stops actually were. Nor did I. So, my introduction to photography was very esoteric, very interesting.
Chuck Reece: You said you were one of those Southern kids who wanted to leave. Why?
Ashley Maynor: Some reasons were juvenile, you know, things that had pain associated with them. My family embarrassed me, like all the time. Like my Aunt Rose, who's my godmother and my namesake for my middle name. She would always ask any boys I brought home if we were 'knocking boots.' She would just do inappropriate things like that — and with such Southern flair. My family was country. They are country. And I didn't fully appreciate the great things about that. I was just caught up with what was embarrassing about that. My grandfather was an alcoholic. There was a lot of addiction in my family, and I saw the pattern. I saw the risk of that, and I didn't want to be a part of it. And I saw my mom, who didn't fall to addiction but who was a teenage mother and kind of gave up all her dreams because she had a baby and had to get married and take care of it. I had seen, my whole life, people whose choices had held them back, and I didn't want to be held back. I wanted out. I just had this thing in me that was ambitious and wanted to see things. I can't explain it.
Chuck Reece: So, after the University of Tennessee, you moved up to Philadelphia to Temple University to study filmmaking.
Ashley Maynor: Part of the reason I started to make "For Memories' Sake" was when I moved to Philadelphia ... and I think I was in my mid-20s at that point ... that was when I first started to miss the South. That was the moment where I started to realize the beauty of it and the blessing of it, to put it in Southern terms. I had missed that in my judgment of it and my fear of addiction and fear of being held back. I had thought I had to reject all of it to be able to leave, and I realized that I didn't have to give it all up. I could be Southern and yet not embrace all those things. I didn't have to be super religious, I didn't have to judge people harshly. I didn't have to do some of those things that I had thought were part of Southern culture, but I could still be Southern. So, there was a new way to be — proud but also critical.
Chuck Reece: Do you think making this film helped you get to that place?
Ashley Maynor: Making the film helped me in many ways to reconcile with my family. It let them know that I love them and that I'm not “too good” for them. When I came home to visit, especially back then, there was always, you know, "Oh, it's Miss Ph.D. It's Miss Educated. It's the World Traveler." There was so much teasing because I went to college and I had these degrees and because I left. I think, especially before I made the film, there was this idea that I thought I was too good for them. Making this movie dispelled that because in many ways it's a love poem to my grandmother.
Chuck Reece: A minute ago, you talked about the “beauty and the blessing” of being Southern. What are you talking about when you use that word, “blessing?”
Ashley Maynor: Like many Southerners, I grew up religious. I grew up Catholic, which is a little bit strange. It was weird because all my friends were many different Christian denominations. I ended up going to a lot of other people's Vacation Bible Schools. A lot of other people tried to save me because I was Catholic. I had a very strange, interesting, fascinating Christian upbringing. But you asked me about the word “blessing.” For me, I am a pretty agnostic person. Now, I'd say I'm more spiritual than religious. I kind of pull from many traditions — but there's a part of me that's always going to be Southern and religious in that way. Like, I now have such a deep respect for that word “blessing” and what it means to other people. So, I'm using it in the way I think my family would understand — that this is a blessing, that it's divine, it's something that is not chosen or taken. It's given. I think it's kind of like the Protestant notion of grace — the thing you receive — and I think that's a beautiful notion.
Chuck Reece: So, when you went into making the film, how did the way you look at your grandmother change?
Ashley Maynor: When I was in film school, I was seeing my grandmother's photos with new eyes. I was learning more about art. Some of my grandma's photos are really bland and very banal. She's taking photos because of who's in them. She likes to capture the moment. She's a nut. She takes pictures of people sleeping. She's taking pictures of people in hospital beds, some incredibly unflattering and some very vulnerable photos. I think she does have a notion of the truth in her photography, but boy is it sometimes a really brutal truth. She did, however, mail me a pretty hilarious selfie of the two of us together from Christmas. She wanted us to do a selfie together, but of course, how does one do that? She printed the selfie and mailed it to me!
Chuck Reece: And while you were making the film, you pulled together an exhibition of Angie’s photographs for the Marginal Arts Festival in Roanoke, Virginia. What was the effect of that exhibition on your grandmother?
Ashley Maynor: I think that's the happiest I've ever seen my grandmother. She told me afterward she was expecting when I said I wanted to exhibit her photos that I was going to put a few photo albums out on a folding table. That's what she thought I meant because that's how she would exhibit her photos.
Chuck Reece: So, she wasn't part of the curation at all? When she walked into it, she must have felt like you’d thrown her a surprise party.
Ashley Maynor: I wanted it to be a surprise. The same with the film. When I showed her the film for the first time, she said, “I thought it was going to be a slideshow with music.”
Chuck Reece: One of the most gripping scenes in the film is your discovery of a video Angie did that showed her cleaning the blood off her face after her husband was violent to her. Was it tough for your grandmother to see you include that?
Ashley Maynor: People didn't know that this had happened. I think one of the biggest ways the movie has changed her is actually her openness about the unpleasant parts of her marriage. She actually keeps a copy of the DVD in her purse with her at all times. She gives it to people she meets and lets them watch it. And some of the people who have watched this movie are people who worked with my grandfather at the Ford glass plant, where he worked for 40 years, and they tell her, “Oh, I had no idea. I never knew what you went through.” And I think that's been incredibly healing and transformative for her — that this ugly truth is finally out in the open and being acknowledged. It's no longer being hidden, and she doesn't have to disclose it. It's like I did it for her. And there is something really freeing about that. I think that as a genteel, Southern kind of lady, she didn't feel like she could proclaim that herself. That would be asking for pity. But because I did it, it's OK, we can integrate that into her history, and people can know about it, and she can feel OK. She can finally not let that be a hidden burden that she was always carrying that no one knew about. I think that's been a direct result of the movie, and that was the part I was most nervous about as a maker and from an ethical standpoint.
Chuck Reece: Did you include Angie in the decision-making about how to handle that?
Ashley Maynor: I did two things. One is I showed the movie to Angie alone before anyone else and actually showed her three different versions of the draft video. I didn't know if she would understand editing and what I could do until I showed her a long, pretty much unedited cut at the start. And then I showed her one significantly cut down and one between the two. And I asked her, 'What are you most comfortable with? Which one? Which one do you want to be in the movie?' She picked the one in the middle. To her credit, she wanted a lot of that truth in there. And I was very careful. I wanted to protect the integrity of that documentation and show it in as unfiltered a way as possible, but one that my grandmother was comfortable with — because it's her life and it's her faith and her story.
For the record, Angela Singer is now 75 years old. She still makes pictures every day.