Geoff Dyer & Janet Malcolm on Photography and Writing

The following conversation first appeared in Aperture magazine #217, Winter 2014, “Lit.” Subscribe here to read it in full, in print or online.

Of the influential British art critic and novelist John Berger, writer Geoff Dyer deems most striking Berger’s “ability to keep looking, staring at a picture until it yields its secrets.” Dyer’s comment appears during the following exchange with critic Janet Malcolm. Dyer and Malcolm, two distinguished writers on photography, were drawn to the medium for different reasons. Although Malcolm suggests that they may even reside within different rooms in photography’s many mansions, both agree that good writing on images begins with an urge to “keep looking.

Malcolm is a longtime staff writer for the New Yorker and a force in American writing and journalism. She is the author of more than ten books, which include Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (1980); The Journalist and the Murderer (1990); The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994); Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007); and Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial (2011). Her recent collection Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (2013) includes, among other pieces, writings on Diane Arbus and Thomas Struth and a brilliant 1986 portrait of Artforum then-editor Ingrid Sischy, and demonstrates that, no matter the subject, Malcolm’s approach is analytical and precise, almost photographically so.

Geoff Dyer is equally catholic in his selection of topics, usually approached in a pleasurably digressive style entirely his own. His book about photography, The Ongoing Moment (2005), is organized around various photographers’ handling of subjects, from blind individuals to hats to benches. Dyer warns his readers in the book’s introduction: “I suspect that this book will be a source of irritation to many people, especially those who know more about photography than I do.” Surely even the most informed readers benefited from his unique approach. Dyer’s other books include Out of Sheer Rage (1997), an achingly funny book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence; an essay collection titled Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism); Zona (2012), about Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker; and most recently, Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush (2014).

When Aperture asked Dyer and Malcolm this past summer to correspond about their respective practices as writers who share an abiding interest in photography, the ensuing email exchange took place over a number of weeks, with Dyer corresponding from his temporary residence in Venice, California, and Malcolm from her summer home in rural Massachusetts. The conversation is fittingly interrupted at one point by a summer storm; an impasse is overcome, improbably, by a surprisingly relevant discussion of aircraft carriers. Dyer and Malcolm may not reveal any secrets as to how they both so precisely bring their subjects into sharp focus. Indeed, there may be none to reveal— aside from a preternatural talent for translating close looking into shrewd writing.

– The Editors

Tamara Shopsin & Jason Fulford, photo-illustration (after Kenneth Josephson), 2014

Geoff Dyer: How did you first become interested in photography? Did this interest precede your writing about it or did the two things occur more or less simultaneously? At the risk of preempting your answer, at what point did an interest in photographs or photographers become an interest in photography?

Janet Malcolm: Like Julia Margaret Cameron, I became interested in photography when a relative gave me a camera. Unlike Mrs. Cameron, I did not become a great photographer, or even a good one. I learned no technique. Most of the pictures I took were either under- or overexposed. Chance dictated that some images emerged clearly. But I loved taking pictures and would take the camera—a Leica M3—on all trips.

I had read that Cartier-Bresson thought of his Leica as an extension of his eye, considering it a great improvement over the large, heavy cameras that were its predecessors. It permitted him to run around Paris having his decisive moments. It has taken me years to realize that (1) traveling with a camera and seeing everything through its eye rather than through one’s own may not be the best way to see the world, and (2) the Leica is not a lightweight object but a heavy, cumbersome thing when compared to the deliciously lightweight point-and-shoot and cellphone cameras of today.

I began writing about photography with the spurious authority of the young. I probably thought that my experience as an amateur photographer was some sort of qualification. Above all, I was inspired by John Szarkowski’s brilliant directorship of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department and by his book Looking at Pictures. What about you? How did you come to write about photography? What drew you to it?

GD: Almost entirely it was reading about it (rather than actually looking at pictures). The big three: you know, two Bs and an S—Barthes, Berger, and Sontag—and a bit of a third B: Benjamin. I wrote a few small things on photographers for British papers and then I became very interested in photographs of jazz musicians when I was writing But Beautiful in 1989, particularly in the question of whether, or how, to convey sound visually. But I was using the pictures mainly as a source for fiction so was far more concerned with the people in the pictures than I was with the people who took them, something I became interested in only later. (That happened when I realized that a picture of D.H. Lawrence was also a picture by Edward Weston.) I still think jazz is an art form that’s been very well served by photography. Do you know Roy DeCarava’s amazing picture of Ben Webster and John Coltrane?

JM: No, I don’t.

GD: I didn’t know it at the time I was writing But Beautiful but wish I had, especially since DeCarava, in The Sound I Saw, had very consciously explored the question that interested me. Webster is cuddling him—Coltrane!—with such rough tenderness. There it is: tradition in jazz condensed into a single picture. I still love it—it’s so intimate and telling—even though DeCarava turned out to be impossible about having his pictures reproduced in The Ongoing Moment. That’s a subject—the right to reproduce images—I’m sure we’ll want to come back to. Anyway, my knowledge of photography was still very scanty in the early 1990s. I remember going to dinner at John Berger’s place in the Paris suburbs in 1991. Cartier- Bresson was there. The name rang some kind of bell but I wasn’t sure if he was a film director or a maker of watches. In 1997 I was invited to the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, North Carolina, to help work on a book of photographs by William Gedney that Margaret Sartor was putting together. That’s when I became aware of how incredibly ignorant I was about the history of photography and began to study it in a far more thorough way. Perhaps appropriately that’s when and where I first read your book Diana & Nikon. I only read Szarkowski much later, by which time I had a sense of what a huge figure he was. I read and reviewed his Atget book—the one with a picture on one page and a few paragraphs of text on the facing page—which I think is one of the great books about photography and a beautiful work of art. (Incidentally, I hope I won’t go to my grave without having done a similar kind of book—picture on verso page, text on recto or vice versa—myself.) He saw the review and sent me a signed copy of his book Mr. Bristol’s Barn. Obviously that’s something I treasure. Anyway, going back to what I said at the beginning, I’d be very interested to hear what Berger, Barthes, and Sontag—each of them— meant to you.

JM: I had to smile when I read your reply to my question. Aperture could not have brought together two people who are more apart in their relationship to photography than we are. Berger’s, Barthes’s, and Sontag’s writings on photography have meant almost nothing to me. I struggled and failed to grasp Barthes’s and Berger’s thought, and while I could understand Sontag’s, with a few exceptions (the Leni Riefenstahl piece, for example), I found her interests remote from mine.

The house of photography has many mansions, and you and I live in different parts of the building. You are on a high floor with a large view while I am in the garden apartment. The first publisher of Diana & Nikon gave the collection the rather clumsy subtitle “Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography.” But what he had in mind was to distinguish my approach from Sontag’s. These are conceptual writers, while I am—I don’t know—someone who is better equipped to look at pictures than to think about what photography is.

So what are we going to talk about—aircraft carriers perhaps? I read your piece in the New Yorker about your experiences aboard one of those amazing vessels with the most enormous pleasure and admiration. I have been interested in aircraft carriers ever since I read a book called We Captured a U-Boat by Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery, in which an aircraft carrier called the Guadalcanal subdues a German submarine and tows it 1,700 miles back to America. The submarine is now in a museum in Chicago. Did you read this book in preparation for your project? I’m not sure why, but I think aircraft carriers will help get us over our impasse re: photography.

(Conversation continues.)

Read the full conversation in Aperture magazine #217, Winter 2014, “Lit.”

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