A Perfect Sketch of a Moment: Janet Malcolm’s Still Pictures

Reviewed By

On the left, painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1832 portrait of Louis-François Bertin, dressed in black, hands on his knees, looking at us with a serious face. On the right, the snapshot of a little girl wearing a hat, her hands on her knees, smiling as she ignores the lens that freezes her gestures. One finds these images at the beginning of Janet Malcolm’s posthumous book Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory. The little girl is Janet Malcolm, but she says she doesn’t know who took the picture, or when, or where. She confesses that her autobiography would have to begin years later, on the summer day contained in her first memory, when girls dressed in white walked in a procession carrying baskets with rose petals. If the picture is not the beginning, and if it isn’t a real memory, why is it there? And why does she invite the reader to compare it with Ingres’s portrait?

The answers are not clear, which introduces one of the paradoxes at the center of photography criticism: We look at a piece of paper (or now a digital file) that claims to represent a three-dimensional object as it is—yet the closer we look, the less clear the object becomes. The starting point of an investigation into photography is the assertion that, as the German philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand observes in his Aesthetics, “a photograph always contains an element of interpretation of the real object.” From here, we’re off to the races. How should we approach the representation of the real object? Can we trust it? Is it politically or ideologically determined? Do we think it is morally wrong to capture the object and reproduce it? And can we call this representation an “art”? These questions have animated photography criticism since the daguerreotype appeared in 1839.

No other medium has been questioned in this way. Photography has fought an uphill battle to win over the hearts of artists and critics. In her essay “A Little History of Photography Criticism; or, Why Do Photography Critics Hate Photography?” Susie Linfield notes that unlike other forms of criticism—literary criticism, music criticism—the writers who have dealt with photography (Baudelaire, Brecht, Benjamin, and Sontag, among others) have distrusted their “subjective, immediate experience” when regarding a photo. This attitude has imbued their approach to photos with suspicion. “For them,” Linfield writes, “photography is a powerful, duplicitous force to defang rather than an experience to embrace and engage.”

Although she was influenced by the work of these writers (and particularly Sontag’s essay “The Melancholy Object”), Janet Malcolm had a different approach. Perhaps because she was a photographer, she did trust her subjective, immediate experience when looking at a photograph. Inspired by the shape of leaves as 19th-century illustrators would depict them before the advent of photography, she decided to photograph burdock leaves for three consecutive summers (collected in her 2008 book Burdock), a way to explore the transformative power of the camera. When she photographed the “decrepit” leaves, she saw that the camera conferred aesthetic value to objects that in their natural context would have few artistic qualities. She also noticed that the camera gloated over the imperfections of the leaves in a way the normal eye cannot, just as it gloats over the imperfection of the faces in Richard Avedon’s portraits. How this happens is what she called the “enigma of photography.”

Still Pictures is Malcolm’s last attempt at “cracking” this enigma, a coda to her work as a critic. The book is a collection of short personal essays, each responding to different snapshots. At first glance the book looks like a memoir—or an autobiography, the word Malcolm would have preferred. But the pictures offer a more nuanced reading: Malcolm is not simply writing her recollections, inspired by photographs. She is writing about the photographs critically, trying to find in them aesthetic value. It is not an accident that her most personal book is a work of photography criticism, just as a photograph of a burdock leaf can be seen as a portrait. A better title would have been “On Snapshots and Memory,” because the real concern of the book are those little photographs and what they can convey to the viewer. In the Afterword, Anne Malcolm informs us that her mother had intended for the book to have a final chapter where she would write about “her life-long interest in taking pictures.” Her illness prevented her from writing it. Perhaps that final chapter would have been her “Ars Poetica,” sharing how she dealt with the dilemmas that haunt anyone who holds a camera: light, right aperture and shutter speed, composition, and focus, then light, first and foremost and forever.

Malcolm began reviewing exhibitions and photography books in the 1970s, a time when the work of photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, André Kertész, and Henri Cartier-Bresson had arrived in the galleries of art museums and photography had reached the status of a modern art. However, the 1970s was also when the medium revealed its democratic essence: cameras had become small and cheap, and now anyone who had one could become a photographer. Sontag noticed this tension when she wrote that “photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing—which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art.” We used to find these photos in family albums, or framed and hanging on the walls, or stored in boxes under layers of dust. Through them we can encounter the faces of the people we miss or look at the world as it used to be. Malcolm agreed with Sontag that most of these photographs lack artistic ambitions, yet one can find aesthetic qualities in them. The job of the critic is to point out those qualities.

In 1966, Malcolm reviewed an exhibition at MOMA called “The Photographer’s Eye.” Organized by curator John Szarkowski, the exhibition aimed to remove the divisions between “art photography” and other forms: photojournalism, snapshots, and commercial photography; Szarkowski wanted to investigate “what photographs look like, and why they look that way.” In the book of the same title that collected the exhibition’s catalog, he placed photographs of well-known photographers next to pictures taken by unknown photographers, some of them taken from different sources, like newspapers or magazines.  The exhibition convinced Malcolm that great photos were not only made by great photographers; in fact, great photos could be made by unknown photographers, and for reasons completely foreign to art. In her essay “Diana & Nikon,” she wrote that the assumption that photography could ascend to the level of an art was refuted by Szarkowski’s anthology.  She concludes that the “golden age” of photography was more likely than not an exception. If every photo can be a great photo, if every camera can be a source of art, photography can only claim to be an art in the Duchampian way: ”If I call it art, it becomes art.”

However, this is not to say that photography cannot influence or participate in the process of creating a work of art. Malcolm was persuaded by curator Peter Galassi’s view that photography did not arrive as a random disruptor or as an accident; rather, it was, in Malcolm’s words, “spawned by art itself.” According to Galassi, it wasn’t a coincidence that photography appeared at the height of nineteenth-century realism, a movement that was depicting the world with “photographic precision.” As a critic, Malcolm was interested in the paradoxical connection between painting and photography, but Aaron Scharf’s 1968 book Art and Photography (which she called “monumental” and constantly makes reference to) revealed to her how both mediums could influence each other. Scharf shows, among other things, how photography changed the way painters approached portraiture; he suggests that Ingres was probably the first to use a daguerreotype as a tool for commissioned portraits and to document his work, and he details how Manet relied on photographs published in newspapers of the execution of Maximilian to paint “The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian.” Unlike their predecessors, Modernist painters—in part influenced by the camera—made their paintings about the materials they used to create a work of art as much as about the subject matter they were depicting.

In Malcolm’s 1979 essay “Two Roads, One Destination” (her best piece on photography), she noticed that the world of photography was divided between those who, like Robert Frank in his book The Americans, disregarded the artistic concerns (composition, exposure) of traditional photographers and let the camera capture the world raw and messy, as only a snapshot can, and those who still followed a pictorial tradition. The followers of Frank thought of photography as an encounter, a “precise moment” that only the camera can capture; other photographers carefully composed their pictures, thinking of them as fine art. Malcolm argued that the work of two young photographers indicated that this chasm was narrowing. Eve Sonneman showed pictures in pairs of everyday objects, or of random moments: a book and a hat on a beach from two different angles, an empty corner next to the same corner but with people passing by, the Acropolis contrasted with a modern building. Malcolm argued that Sonneman’s pictures radically exposed that, contrary what Frank’s followers believed, there is no single definitive moment that the photographer should find with its camera. Rather, there are several moments, all of them determined by what the lens can capture, or what the photographer decides to leave out. These pairs of pictures, as “anti-artistic” as they are, still retain an aesthetic quality that the camera confers by calling attention to itself.

Then there was Harry Callahan, an abstract photographer, who had taken a series of carefully composed color photos of houses in Providence. Malcolm calls this pictures—as with the burdock leaves—“portraits.” “The houses,” she writes, “sit there before the viewer like people who have come to a photographer’s studio.” The beauty of the color and the composition, achieved through wide lenses, make the photos no less truthful than Sonneman’s. “If you scratch a great photograph you find two things: a painting and a photograph,” she writes. “It is the photographic means with which photography imitates painting that produce a photograph’s uniqueness and aliveness,” she concludes in “Two Roads.” Although they give different answers, both Sonneman and Callahan’s work calls attention to photography as a medium and questions how the medium relates to art. The intuitive connection between Modernist painters and photography was, as Szarkowski put it, that “whatever else a photograph may be, it is inevitably about photography.”

Let’s look at the snapshot of the little girl again, the portrait that Janet Malcolm at first felt foreign to her. It is not a work of art, not even a great photo, yet in its ordinariness the snapshot retains an aesthetic quality. A great picture, as Malcolm argues, is one that, through photographic means, confers an aesthetic quality to a mundane object or moment, and modestly imitates a painting while calling attention to the mechanical limits that a photographer must navigate. Ingres’s portrait of Louis-François Bertin is far superior to the snapshot of little Janet, yet the snapshot is quietly trying to imitate the painting, which is why Malcolm puts them side by side. Perhaps it is true to say that, at its best, photography is a perfect sketch of a moment or an object, a sketch that cannot reach the imaginative qualities of a painting yet contains the essence that produces a masterpiece like Ingres’s portrait. But this is all up for debate—questions are what matter, as she wrote in “Two Roads, One Destination.” At the end of the first chapter of Still Pictures, as Malcolm looks at the snapshot again, she realizes that by letting herself be captured in that innocent pose, the little girl wandered into a big debate, and suddenly she feels “the stirrings of identification.”

Malcolm was skeptical of autobiographies. In her essay “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography,” she reveals she has attempted to write about her life, but ends up giving excellent reasons not to do it. Her main argument for abandoning the project was simple: “Memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clear.” However, memory is the tool of literature, and for Malcolm there was a line between the two. One can see a parallel between her aesthetics of photography and her conception of journalism: Just as photography should inspire awe for the superiority of painting by showing the limits of the medium in contrast to the artistic freedom of a painting, journalism should inspire awe for the artistic superiority of literature. In her book The Journalist and the Murderer she rebuked journalists who justified their work by calling it “art.” Malcolm was a demanding reader. By “literature,” she didn’t mean any writer: She meant Tolstoy, Chekhov, Henry James, Wharton. But this distinction, which at first seems absolute, is subtly undermined by her own writing. One cannot read her essay “Forty-One False Starts” or some of the most insightful passages of The Journalist and the Murderer without thinking that Malcom was one the best writers of her generation, and not “just” a journalist. The same could be said of other journalists who remain faithful to the distinction between journalism and literature, like Elena Poniatowska or Åsne Seierstad. The prose of a journalist can also grant aesthetic value to the mundane.

Still Pictures confirms that Malcolm never changed her mind about autobiographies. Her sense of failure at making her young self “as interesting as the strangers I have written about,” and her journalistic instinct to withhold her affections, never went away. Despite her self-restraint there are vivid descriptions of her childhood in New York surrounded by Czech immigrants. There are sunny summers in New Hampshire swimming in Pleasant Lake. There are passages about her grandmother Klara. She defines her mother’s unique European charm, and calls her father “the least pretentious person I have ever known.” She writes about her struggles to learn English, and the moment she got infected with “the virus of romance.” She notes, correctly, that one has to be an “imperious boor” not to notice that everything looks better in France. And we learn that before the second libel trial in the Jeffrey Masson affair—sparked by her book In the Freud Archives, for which she was falsely accused of basing her portrayal of Masson, a psychoanalyst, on invented quotes—she asked a speech coach named Sam Chwat to help her rehearse her responses and learn how to address the jury. For every memory there is a photograph. Sometimes we see it, sometimes she describes it.

Those who have accused Malcolm of being brutal and cold will find in this book yet another example of her “pitiless prose.” For them Still Pictures will be a failed memoir, and that may be a fair assessment. However, if one reads it as a work of criticism, another possibility opens up. The Argentinian novelist Ricardo Piglia was once asked if writing criticism could be “cathartic.” He rejected the notion of catharsis but suggested that the critic is someone who rebuilds her life within the texts she reads—or, in this case, within the pictures she looks at. Criticism, he said, is a post-Freudian form of autobiography. Perhaps Malcolm would have accepted this alternative to the traditional autobiography. One might even read Malcolm’s writing on photography, from the earliest essays in the seventies to Still Pictures, as a form of autobiography. What matters is to stare at “some of the drab little photographs,” as she puts it, and listen when they speak.




Guillermo Manning is a writer and photographer based in New York. He co-edits LaidOff NYC’s Letters section. More from this author →