If the number of obituaries written on someone is a measure of their impact on society, Janet Malcolm was a heavy hitter. Google lists more than 40,000.
Before dying in 2021, Malcolm was an editor at the Venerable New Yorker magazine for nearly 60 years; she became the accomplished journalist and literary heiress of EB White.
She had a characteristic detail-oriented style and an analytical curiosity about everything. As the magazine’s first editor, she would in time join Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes as elite photography critics. How she came to encourage photographers to follow their own creative instincts is at the heart of this book.
His photographic essays were, on the surface, reviews of photo exhibitions and books that investigated “how and why a person pointing a camera a certain way at a certain segment of visual reality will occasionally and mysteriously produce a work of ‘art”. They shaped Malcolm’s thoughts on photography. The modest explanation was “I began to grasp the subject in the middle of the essays and by the ninth, ‘Two Roads’, I was able to disentangle some of the thornier issues.” Not one to swim in one lane, she has also written on literature, psychoanalysis, crime and biography.
The first of Malcolm’s 15 books was published in 1980. It collected 11 essays in chronological order and was titled Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetics of Photography. Editor David Godine chose the name to separate from Sontag’s On the photoalthough Malcolm did not like the title and “found [Sontag’s] interests distant from mine. Either way, he wasn’t named for who you might think.
In 1997, Aperture released an extended edition. They added a new preface, five essays, and other supporting footage to the original material. It was titled Diana & Nikon: Essays on Photography and from now on I will refer only to this edition. The book was out of print when my interest in art criticism waned. So I adopted a used copy of Better World Books and tried to give it as good a home as the first one at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Library.
For Malcolm, “the camera is simply not the flexible and powerful instrument of description that the pen is”. But, unlike other photographic critics of the time, Diana and Nikon was generously illustrated with 106 monochrome images, mainly photos, and a complementary bibliography. The original of a painting, “The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian” by Manet, can be seen at the BMFA. A small handwriting on my copy identified it as BM 30.444.
Malcolm’s essays would open with a statement, “which would propel the piece forward”, about the work of a photographer, painter or writer, then go on to compare and contrast it with others still closing the circle towards photography. She spoke of holy masters and contemporary talent. Edward Steichen, Edward Weston and Walker Evans are examples of the former, and Nancy Rexroth, Emmet Gowin and Chauncey Hare of the latter. In all, she has given more than 100 creative dedications. Half was new to me.
Malcolm’s essays spanned 100 years of photography and dissected many of its key turning points.
- The gifts and audacity of Stieglitz
- Weston’s dazzling summaries
- Penn’s Surprising Portraits
- Avedon’s odd feel for the air du temps
- The Embrace of the Snapshot by Szarkowski
- The clash of images of Alexander and Hilsher
- Eggleston’s Color
- Avedon’s journey to becoming the most famous fashion photographer
- Frank’s vision
- Stieglitz’s O’Keeffe erotic portraits
- Evans’ Populism and Frank’s Despair
- by Galassi Before photography exposure
- Arbus’ Not So Identical Sisters
- Voyeurism at the Bush House
- Mann’s audacity and authority
- The delicately ironic exercises of James and Bellocq
“Two Roads” focused on iconoclast Robert Frank. He turned two Guggenheim grants into 27,000 exhibits; reduced to 83 photos (0.3% if you count) for Americans, published first in France and then in the United States. His images eschewed painterly values such as “design, composition, tonal balance, lucidity and quality of impression” and replaced them with “accidents, disorder, chance, disorder, arbitrariness, blur and grain”.
The book clearly revealed “mid-century America at its most depressing and pathetic.” Malcolm observed that “no one had ever taken such pictures before” and pointed to Arbus, Sonneman and Callahan for help. Thereafter, only two polarized photographic factions remained; fine art and “action snapshots” with Frank becoming the Manet of the new genre. Modern critic Geoff Dyer, a pupil of John Berger, said, “Photography would never be the same again.
Written in two different eras and published without reissues, Malcolm’s views have evolved but still ring true. First enchanted by pictorialism, it was only three years later that almost accidental snapshots with surreal vitality appeared. In another dozen years, valuing the originality of artists was the position to take. Then, she builds a sensitive and generous appreciation of the place of photography in relation to other arts. That alone encouraged photographers to do their thing, whatever it was. It’s also much friendlier to photographers than the academic reviews were.
After 1997, Malcolm continued to occasionally reflect on photography in the New Yorker and included five new essays in the 2013 collection Forty-one false starts.
Malcolm spent months researching and writing each finely nuanced essay. Helen Garner said “it will not be read lazily”. Active reading has helped support my efforts to internalize this very dense book and it could be a useful tool for you as well.
This is the first time I’ve read photography reviews. I have little formal experience but I started with Barthes and Sontag anyway. The results were miserable. I couldn’t understand either. Benjamin was more approachable but dated. Last year I learned that Janet Malcolm had ties to the New Yorker. I’m a huge EB White fan, so that resonated. They overlapped for about 10 years in the magazine and stylistically to a large extent. This book was a worthwhile challenge due to the high quality of its writing. This one comes highly recommended – I think you’ll be delighted.
About the Author: Jim Wilson is retired in coastal southern California. He enjoys wildlife photography and catching up on reading.