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Why Janet Malcolm’s Photography Criticism Still Resonates

Forty years after the publication of her collected essays on photography, Malcolm’s writing offers the pleasure of seeing a great mind grapple with the medium.

By Brian Sholis

Cover of Janet Malcolm’s Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography, 1980

Janet Malcolm began covering photography for the New Yorker at an auspicious moment. In the mid-1970s, art museums began to create curatorial departments dedicated to photography, more commercial galleries devoted to the medium opened to the public, and a growing number of artists began using the camera as part of broader conceptual practices. In the United States and Europe, these transformative changes were accompanied by a boomlet in influential books. Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980) were the most celebrated and remain the most well-known; Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983), which offers more recondite pleasures, has recently gained traction among cognoscenti. Malcolm’s collection Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography was also part of this wave; it was published forty years ago this spring.

In Diana & Nikon, Malcolm reports from the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and occasionally, from Manhattan galleries. She writes on recently published books. But her elegant considerations do not reflect much of the creative ferment we now associate with the period—for example, the emergence of what is now known as the Pictures Generation or the landscape artists memorably collected under the name New Topographics. Whether by inclination or because she was writing for a general-interest magazine, she mostly sticks to figures already sainted—such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Walker Evans—or to those well on their way, like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, and Harry Callahan. (The omnipresence of white men in the book does, unfortunately, reflect the institutional prerogatives of the period.) As Malcolm works through the canon, her writing, she claims in the book’s preface, is an education conducted in public: “It is only about midway through the volume that I think I begin to get hold of the subject, and in the ninth essay, ‘Two Roads,’ that I untangle some of the knottier issues.”

Harry Callahan, Weeds in Snow, Detroit, 1943

Harry Callahan, Weeds in Snow, Detroit, 1943
© The Estate of Harry Callahan and courtesy Pace Gallery

That humility, however performative, distinguishes Malcolm from Sontag, Barthes, and Flusser—and is partly what makes Diana & Nikon valuable today. Malcolm writes about photographs to learn what she thinks about photography; the others wrote about photography to make declarations about the world. This is not to suggest that Malcolm does not write with authority. Her language is crisp, she demonstrates her perceptiveness through exquisite description, and her opinions can be cutting. (On Avedon’s enormous 1970s group portraits, she writes: “One finally balks at the low sensationalism that is being offered as high seriousness.”) But the decisive clarity of her prose, which fans will recognize from her subsequent writing on artists, literary figures, legal cases, psychoanalysis, and other subjects, is paired in this, her first book, with a willingness to revisit and refine the same few ideas. Provided one reads the chronologically arranged essays in order, witnessing this autodidact at work is one of Diana & Nikon’s chief pleasures.

Throughout these essays, Malcolm has two principal concerns about the art of photography. The first, how it relates to painting, has been worried over since the medium’s invention. Writing on Stieglitz in 1975, she celebrates his framing of the Photo-Secession for how it lifted artists working in photography out of mere mimicry. “What has changed is the literalness of photography’s relationship to painting: photographs no longer exhibit the surface qualities of paintings and drawings.” Thankfully, in her view, the photographers Stieglitz championed retained painting’s emphasis on formal design: “Pictorial formalism as a prerequisite for all else was the real Lesson of the Master.”

Bill Owens, My wife is a realtor, 1972

Bill Owens, My wife is a realtor and gets invited to every grand opening in town. This week it’s Sambo’s restaurant, 1972
Courtesy the artist

Three years and more than one hundred pages later, when writing about Robert Frank and those he influenced, Malcolm describes a radical shift within photography by linking it to a related shift in painting (say, from Grant Wood to Jackson Pollock): “Simply by going with the camera instead of against it, they produced a body of work that looked as different from the photography of the past as Action Painting did from its predecessors. That this photography emerged shortly after the emergence of Action Painting is itself yet another indication of the close (if often secret) watch that photography keeps on developments in painting.”

The evolution within photography that Frank represents epitomizes Malcolm’s second concern: how its creative practitioners respond to snapshots and other utilitarian pictures. “Photography went modernist . . . when it began to study snapshots,” she writes. Frank’s innovation, though Malcolm might not like the positive connotations of that word, is to sever the link to painting’s emphasis on formal design—to undo what Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession had done half a century earlier. Frank “permitt[ed] the camera what no art photographer had ever hitherto let it get away with—all the accidents of light, the messy conjunctions of shape, the randomness of the framing, the disorderliness of the composition, the arbitrariness of gesture and expression, the blurriness and graininess of the printing.” What did Malcolm make of this development? On the same page, she writes that Frank “produced pictures that look as if a kid has taken them while eating a Popsicle and then had had them developed and printed at the drugstore.”

Robert Frank, Bar, Gallup, New Mexico, 1955

Robert Frank, Bar, Gallup, New Mexico, from the series The Americans, 1955
© Andrea Frank Foundation

Malcolm’s predilection is for the formalism that avant-garde photographers were then leaving behind. In 1976, she framed the terms of the debate starkly: “The attributes previously sought by photographers—strong design, orderly composition, control over tonal values, lucidity of content, good print quality—have been stood on their heads, and the qualities now courted are formlessness, rawness, clutter, [and] accident.” But the essay on Frank and the snapshot aesthetic is the ninth in the collection, the one she flagged at the outset. It’s to her credit that, in this piece, her prior emphasis on polarities—painting and photography, “artful” versus “artless” pictures—begins to soften. She notes a paradox: “As each side digs out its own position—the avant-garde going deeper and deeper into its examination of the photographic, the old guard into the making of medium-transcending beautiful forms—the gap between them seems to be narrowing rather than widening.”

This realization leads to a growing acceptance of ambiguity in photographs; at one later point, she identifies exceptions to writer William Stott’s face-off between Evans and Frank. It also enables Malcolm to more charitably consider photographers whose work doesn’t match her taste. She writes lucidly on Eve Sonneman’s postmodern image pairings and, near the end of the book, argues for the value of Chauncey Hare’s acid portrayal of late-twentieth-century America. (In Hare’s 1978 book Interior America, Malcolm notes, “Hare enters the homes that Frank sped by when taking the pictures for The Americans.”) Over the four years covered by this volume, she becomes a better critic.

Of course, Malcolm doesn’t need to become a better writer. Throughout the book, her descriptive prowess is its own reward. Here she is on Harry Callahan: “Callahan’s photographs are stylistically of a piece, marked by a kind of exquisite dryness, a quietness and evenness of tone, and a quality of muted restraint, almost grudgingness. He is a sort of harpsichordist of the camera.” Elsewhere, a photograph by William Eggleston depicts “a stretch of dirt road near Glendora, Mississippi, taken on a clear, windy summer day: one of those heart-catchingly lucid days of blue sky and fast-moving clouds, of juicy, fragrant greenness, of shivering tree leaves showing their white undersides—a day that looks, one says to oneself, like a Kodacolor snapshot, but that, conversely, a Kodacolor snapshot never evokes.”

William Eggleston, Untitled, Black Bayou Plantation, near Glendora, Mississippi, ca. 1970
© Eggleston Artistic Trust and courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Malcolm leans on T. S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to reconcile herself to photography’s newest developments. As she phrases it, “It takes a while for new works of art to settle into the tradition out of which they came. Or, rather, the dust that the difference between the old and the new throws up has to settle before the relative smallness of the difference is perceived and the connection to the past is established.” The use of Eliot is emblematic. Another pleasure Diana & Nikon offers is Malcolm’s continual and apt reference to literature. She compares the “subtle mockery” in Irving Penn’s portraits to Henry James’s The Sacred Fount (1901); twice, she likens Frank, an outsider commenting on America, to Vladimir Nabokov; she relates fashion photography to “the more inflexibly formal poetic modes, such as the villanelle and the sestina”; and she frames the “erotic impact” of Stieglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe by reference to D. H. Lawrence.

These analogies, combined with the tonal difference between Malcolm’s criticism and contemporaneous writing by Sontag and Barthes (to say nothing of more academic photography critics), brought to mind another point of comparison: the literary critic James Wood. Malcolm’s generous and rigorous descriptions, likely due to the fact that her reviews ran without illustrations—Tina Brown introduced photographs to the magazine when she became editor in 1992—are akin to Wood’s frequent use of quotations. And Malcolm’s taste for the classical in photography accords with the popular understanding of Wood’s preference for a humane realism.

Today, photography is undergoing a transition arguably even more dramatic than that of the era when Malcolm’s essays were written. And we have no shortage of theorists actively parsing what photography is and might become. In an interview with Geoff Dyer published in Aperture in 2014, Malcolm admitted that she is “someone who is better equipped to look at pictures than to think about what photography is.” The fortieth anniversary of Diana & Nikon gives us the chance not only to watch a great mind grapple with the medium, but also to remember the value of proceeding from photographs themselves.

Brian Sholis is an independent writer, editor, and curator living in Toronto.

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