Janet Malcolm, Still Pictures

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (here). Hardcover, 176 pages, with 29 black-and-white photographs. With an introduction by Ian Frazier and an afterword by Anne Malcolm. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The interplay between photography and human memory is richly complicated and nuanced, so much so that even after nearly two hundred years of experimentation and explanation, we still can’t entirely pin down (or control) how the medium and the mind interact. Of course, we all understand that photographs document specific moments, and that over time, they become what we call history and memory. But photographs only show us so much, offering surfaces and instants that often conceal deeper meaning or omit important and resonant truths, so what we see in the pictures can often inscrutably resist clear interpretation. Photographs can also become stand-ins or triggers for memory, where we remember the pictures rather than the moments themselves (which have been forgotten or were never remembered in the first place), creating a nesting of memories that can then be subject to unexpected distortions and amplifications.

Janet Malcolm’s posthumously-published memoir Still Pictures wrestles with these and other uncertainties that she finds in the uneasy connection between photography and memory. Using a selection of individual family photographs as a jumping off point, Malcom has crafted short essays and meditations on each of these pictures, teasing memories, stories, and anecdotes about the people, places, and singular moments of her early life out of these images and then linking them into a form that approaches a fragmented autobiography. The flow of the book feels something like flipping through Malcolm’s family album while she sits right next to us on the sofa, with the author filling in intimate backstories (and brightly incisive commentaries) to the pictures – and interpreting the memories – that are passing by as the pages turn.

Malcom’s layered relationship with photography reaches far back beyond Still Pictures. Best known as a journalist and essay writer, she had a multi-decade career writing for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, which included a stint as the photography columnist for The New Yorker in the 1970s; a selection of her essays from this period was gathered into the 1980 book Diana & Nikon, which remains for many a touchstone of essential photography criticism. She was also an artist and photographer herself, publishing a book of color photographs in 2008 (titled Burdock and featuring close up portraits of individual burdock leaves) and making collages from found photographs and other ephemera (including fragments of Emily Dickinson’s poems), which were displayed in a series of gallery shows in the 20o0s and 2010s.

In Still Pictures, Malcom applies some of her acute observational skills to images from her own life, often looking at the pictures with an arms-length kind of distancing, as though examining someone else’s artifacts in search of clues. Her descriptions of what she finds are consistently precise and insightful, noticing the tiny details of gestures, expressions, poses, and clothing that then provide her an entry point into her own history, even when she doesn’t remember the particular incidents or circumstances captured in the photographs. Malcolm frequently wrote about psychoanalysis, and many of her short essays here have the feel of active self-interpretation, of taking the discoveries of the photographs and extrapolating them out into larger systems of emotion, implication, and speculation, or tying the mood of a found picture back to a related mood to be excavated from her past. The resulting connections and associations are loose and wandering, not necessarily corresponding to the chronology of her life in the way that a typical autobiography would stay close to a specific timeline or progression; as in her collages, there is a bit of artistic rearrangement taking place.

Almost all of the photographs Malcolm has chosen for Still Pictures are portraits of people (including herself), so it isn’t entirely surprising that the arc of her narrative runs through parents, grandparents, family friends, her younger sister, and her childhood friends, effectively front loading the story around the first few decades of her life. An anxious-looking face peering out of a train window (flanked by her parents) leaving Prague in the summer of 1939 sets the Czech foundation of Malcom’s history, and she uses this single photo to rough in the story of her Jewish family’s escape from the Nazis as well as her landing in New York, where her family settled in with relatives until finding their own place amid a community of recent Czech immigrants in Yorkville. Pictures of Malcom’s maternal grandmother and her mother as a child provide further possibilities for filling in more of the family history, and for trying to see patterns of identity that have been passed down through the generations. Malcom herself returns in images of working at a blackboard (with a teacher known simply as slečna or “Miss”), in a group shot on a junior high field trip (to the Empire State Building), and in an impromptu gathering near a car on the way to summer camp, each scene offering Malcom a chance to spin off episodic stores about Czech school, PS 96 and the High School for Music and Art, and hiking in the woods.

The images continue to intermittently flip by, giving Malcolm openings to consider her “bad girl” friend Francine, various secret romances and crushes, and her uninteresting Czech neighbors, and to delve more deeply into the personalities of her father and mother. Malcolm explicates one posed image on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in 1949 with uncompromising incisiveness, unpacking her father’s oversized suit, her mother’s frumpy dress, and her own high-waited skirt; she finds them all wanting, especially her parents’ lack of stylishness in comparison to an image from Prague decades earlier where he wears a jaunty fedora and she a stylish fox fur coat and hat ensemble. In these images, she sees evidence of parents who traded wealthy, sophisticated, educated Prague for milder middle class America, the assimilation seemingly stripping them of some of their glamour and appeal. Many of the anecdotes and remembrances in Still Pictures tussle with the uneasy intermingling of Czech and American parts of Malcom’s identity, the process of reminiscing seemingly re-opening old questions of how she saw herself and her family as she navigated the process of growing up and building her own persona.

Roughly three quarters of the way through this visually-induced memoir, Malcom lurches forward several decades, with a handful of chapters that seem largely disconnected from the rest of the narrative and from the idea of interpreting pictures as a doorway into personal history. One essay indirectly considers a piece of Italian china that inhabited a rented apartment where she met her (later) second husband for guilty assignations. Another seems to want to re-litigate a lawsuit about invented quotations that had plagued Malcom’s later years, attempting to reposition herself and the way she performed for the jury; she tosses into this mix a mistaken Holbein reference made by the opposing lawyer with an art-snobbish glee that feels hollow. The way these later chapters have been bolted onto the main body of the book feels a bit awkward (especially given that decades of her life in between are missing, including her first marriage and any mention of her daughter), and a reference to additional unwritten final chapter in the afterword reinforces the feeling of this work as being at least partially unfinished.

For those coming to Still Pictures hoping to find Malcolm talking about photography itself in more wide ranging ways, the book’s final chapter is really the only place where this occurs, but the short anecdote she recounts is gloriously biting. During Malcolm’s years a photo critic, she had been asked to write an essay about the “snapshot aesthetic” and a new photobook published by Aperture called The Snapshot, which featured work by Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowtiz, Lee Friedlander, and Nancy Rexroth, among others. In her essay (called “Diana & Nikon”, which became the title of her book of photo essays), Malcolm selected four pictures to illustrate this new aesthetic, one each from Meyerowitz, Frank, and Rexroth; the fourth she took from her husband’s desk, where he had been keeping a forgettably bland snapshot of friends on a tennis court (the image is reproduced above). She credited the photograph to “G. Botsford” (his actual name), and presented it together with the other images without any explanation for what she had done. As she tells the story, no one noticed or commented on her trick when the piece ran, and actually, reviewers and critics since have referenced the Botsford image as an example of art (versus the typical artless snapshot), which she of course found profoundly wonderful.

While Malcolm doesn’t do as much with the interpretation of her family photographs in this book as she might have, her prose in Still Pictures is consistently sparkling and lucid, with an undercurrent of mischievous contrarian intelligence that is never far from view. When she allows herself to really dig into the examination of the pictures, and the shifting nature of memory that is associated with that effort, her essays settle into a flow state where we are entranced by her whip-smart annotative storytelling. But in the end, there just aren’t enough photographs in Still Pictures to provide the scaffolding for a fully reflective lifetime of that kind of narrative building. We’re left with something more like a truncated or partial history, where flashes of taut brilliance are mixed with decently wide expanses of omission. Perhaps this is simply the nature of any autobiographical effort, where even near the end of life identity is still actively being crafted, and certain questions and self-delusions from the past are better left unanswered.

Collector’s POV: Since the images included in this book are all family snapshots, we will forego the discussion of artist representation relationships and secondary market histories typically found in this section.

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