The Journalist and the Photographer

Janet Malcolm’s Still Pictures

Brian Dillon

Janet Malcolm photographed with a camera, date unknown. Courtesy Janet Malcolm and Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Janet malcolm, who died at the age of 86 in June 2021, was above all a payer of close attention, an extreme noticer. Obituaries and appreciations of her work reminded us that she practiced an exacting, even unsympathetic sort of attention: Malcolm, according to a cliché on which her mind might have snagged, “cast a cold eye” on her subjects, whether they were murderers, television personalities, wayward Freudians, great artists, or morally ambiguous journalists (among whose number she counted herself). What else should we call her? Essayist, critic, biographer, celebrity profiler: in Malcolm’s case they all reduce to the rigors and lures of reporting.

She was certainly renowned for this precise reportage, but in her writing there are other kinds of exactitude—other styles of attention due. In her most daring profiles during her long tenure as a staff writer for The New Yorker, Malcolm frequently “senses” something about her interviewees, providing the reader with some intuition, quality, more or less occult truth about the people she describes. Frequently this mysterious “sense” depends on strictly visual cues, details Malcolm gives us with a nicety and ease that seem immune to distortion. Her distinctive ability to reflect on images and appear­ances comes into focus in a new book, Still Pictures, a posthumously published memoir of sorts. It is composed of twenty-six essays or chapters, most departing from or (rarely) staying close to a single photograph in her possession. The subtitle is “On Photography and Memory,” a phrase that immediately summons photographic rumi­nations in the work of Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Roland Barthes, and W. G. Sebald. And in invoking those writers, she reminds us that images may be diversions from reality.

The book is also a reflection on the nature and desirability of autobiography. As Malcolm has it, autobiography contends pecu­liarly with memory. In a short essay from 2010 called “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography,” she writes: “Memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or ren­der character.…If an autobiography is to be even minimally read­able, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious.” Still Pictures may not be an autobiography, as it is all about memory, its passions and errors. It’s possible that photography operates here—and in modern autobiography in general—as a way to indulge or excuse what Malcolm calls (with a dated turn) the “autism” of memory. An excuse not to be tedious but to tarry with details without racing to judgment. To allow a kind of drift, a vacation from acuity. That in Malcolm’s case the rest cure does not take is surely no surprise. She remained wary of the genre, its longueurs and indulgences, the unwarranted settling of scores.

In her lack of sentiment, in her insistence on the hard perplexity of adult motives, Malcolm is an intimidatingly mature writer.

This predilection for details plays out in her writing more generally—she sometimes wrote about images, but she always wrote about appearances. She inherited this commitment from nineteenth-century fiction: a belief that the first task of the narra­tor is to detail her characters’ appearance and dress, the fixtures and fittings of their home or work. Such details open a royal route to the delineation of character and morals. How often does Malcolm note that this or that person she has met or interviewed reminds her of a minor character in Russian fiction? The genius of the method includes those moments when she is forced to admit she got it wrong and has misread the appearance in question. One of the risks: that she is looking from some hampering vantage, with her own tastes and prejudices in the way. Another, that this becomes the representative Malcolm trick, and we stop trusting it. When she was interviewed by Katie Roiphe for The Paris Review in 2011, she made sure to leave the room so that her interviewer could take notes on the apartment and its furnishings. Later she wrote to Roiphe: “You obediently took out a notebook, and gave me a rather stricken look, as if I had asked you to do something faintly embarrassing.”

Questions of taste, distinction, morality, the feeling (even if we suspect it is a special effect) that she sees more keenly than oth­ers the surface and soul of her subject: the qualities of Malcolm’s prose mean she is one of those writers it is hard to imagine as a child. It’s not only because, at least until her late autobiographical writings, she was reticent about her origins or her talent. There is however quite a lot in her work about the ethics and mechanics (same thing) of what she is doing—beyond, that is, the famous opening sentence of The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every jour­nalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” In her lack of sentiment, in her insistence on the hard perplexity of adult motives, Malcolm is an intimidatingly mature writer. Despite her interest in psychoanalysis, something in her flinches before the autobiographer’s need to reckon with primal scenes and familial backstories—with excuses.

Nor, in Still Pictures, does she fully trust her own tracking of family history through snapshots and studio portraits. In case we are tempted to think of photographs as sentimental conduits to the past, Malcolm stops us short before she has really begun: The first piece, “Roses and Peonies,” contains a kind of joke about misconstrued affinities among images or across time. As she han­dles a crackling old photo album, Malcolm spots a gestural rhyme (heavily seated, hands on knees) between a photograph of herself, aged two or three, and the French artist Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’s 1832 portrait of Louis-François Bertin: “No feeling of iden­tification stirs as I look at her round face and thin arms and her incongruously assertive pose.” It is a problem the writers before her wrestle with; “nothing Proustian in the photograph,” says Barthes, even though Proust is often on about photographs.

Instead, or alongside, she gives us a scene of ethical-aesthetic apprenticeship, the inaugural instance of her capacity (or is it a curse?) for discernment and disapproval. Her earliest memory: on a fine summer day in the country, she is about to join a procession of little girls in white dresses. All the others carry baskets of rose petals: “I want to join the procession but have no basket of petals. A kind aunt comes to my aid. She hastily plucks white petals from a bush in her garden and hands me a basket filled with them. I immediately see that the petals are not rose petals but peony petals. I am unhappy. I feel cheated. I feel that I have not been given the real thing.” Was it a desire for conformity that made her balk at the peonies? Or an early remembrance of her budding aesthetic judgment? If the latter, it is something the mature Malcolm feels she can identify with, at last.

malcolm was born Jana Klara Wienerova in July 1934. After its bittersweet opening among the would-be peonies, Still Pictures begins again with a print of the author aged almost five looking from a train window, as she leaves her birthplace of Prague with her Jewish family: “On the back of the photo four handwritten words appear: ‘Leaving Prague, July 1939.’” Hanna and Josef Wiener, so the family story had it, bribed an SS officer so that they, Malcolm, and her sister Marie could take a train to Hamburg, then board one of the last civilian ships to leave for the United States before the Second World War broke out. In New York, little Jana Klara became Janet Clara; her parents changed the family name to Winn. At first they stayed with family in Flatbush, and the following year moved to the Upper East Side.

What exactly is it that this writer sees when she looks at a body, its deportment and circumstance, whether in reality or in a photograph?

Malcolm describes her father as “the gentlest of men” who loved “opera, birds, mushrooms, wildflowers, poetry, baseball”; in New York he established himself as a family doctor and a psy­chiatrist. Hanna Winn changed her name to Joan and became an announcer for the Voice of America. Relations with her mother were more fraught than with her father. Malcolm quotes letters from her father urging her, once she had left home, to be kinder in her correspondence with her mother, whom she presents as a depressed person in need of attention and love, not her daughter’s habitual recourse to smart, dismissive humor. “I realized later in life that she always had something the matter with her.” But as a young woman Malcolm could not or would not recognize this vulnerable mother.

Around a selection of conventional midcentury snapshots—the Winns all badly dressed in Atlantic City, a fading group of kids at summer camp in New Hampshire—Malcolm constellates more peculiar imagery to convey how her childhood may have shaped her: photographs that connect her to her Czech past, Jewish her­itage, and ambiguous class status. (Malcolm is careful to say that the Winns were not “rich,” but in Malcolm’s writing we see she has a sensibility at ease with the finer things.) There is a signed photograph of the Czech Jewish film actor and director Hugo Haas and a picture of Fred and Ella Traub, a childless Czech Jewish couple who were friends of Malcolm’s parents and “the epitome of dullness,” unknowingly lampooned in the Winn household. “Recognizing dullness for the dispiriting thing it is may not be a bad part of one’s early education. It can only make the glamorous, the hilarious, the sexy, the strange more precious.” Not seen: the Traubs’ opera singer friend Olga Demant, whose gold-rimmed wine glasses Malcolm inherited: “In what could be called an act of anti-alchemy, I have deliberately allowed the gold to wear away by putting the glasses in the dishwasher.”

There is something of the same eroding attitude in her treatment of certain individuals, except it is not exactly “anti-alchemy” when the subject is already a vulnerable one. Among the more obtuse or resistant photographs in Still Pictures: the seven-year-old Malcolm at a blackboard, chalk in hand, beside her after-school Czech lan­guage teacher Slečna Vaňková. The image derives from a series taken in 1942 by Marjory Collins for the Office of War Information. Collins, a feminist who would later cover the civil rights move­ment and the Vietnam War, had worked for Roy Stryker in the storied photographic unit of the Farm Security Administration and moved with him to the OWI when the United States joined the Second World War. Collins’s photographs of the home front included studies of refugees, women at work, and the families of “hyphenated Americans” like the immigrant Winns. Her images of Malcolm’s family are easily found today on the Library of Congress website: the young girls roller-skating in Central Park, the whole family playing Chinese checkers while Joan’s mother sits knitting in the foreground. Malcolm writes that she has no memory of these photographic sessions. In place of several cute studies of her­self aged seven or eight, Malcolm gives us the obscure picture in which she faces away from the camera and the whole is dominated by her teacher in a polka dot dress.

What is Malcolm paying attention to here? This is how she describes her teacher: “Slečna Vaňková was an obese woman with short, straight hair who always seemed to be sweating. She wore long, dark-red print dresses, all of which appeared to be the same dress, and heavy black shoes.” Malcolm is not exactly unsympa­thetic toward this kind-hearted person, who memorably staged with her pupils a Czech version of Oklahoma! If as a child she thought her teacher weak and unattractive, now “I wonder about where and how she lived, what she did when she wasn’t teaching the class, how old she was.” But listen to the way Malcolm con­cludes the story of her family’s sessions with Marjory Collins: “The images reflect a charming and likeable person, who made us all seem charming and likeable. I suspect that the exciting, Arbus-like picture of the grotesque Slečna was one she would have preferred not to have taken.” “Grotesque”? As it happens, Collins was crit­icized by OWI colleagues for showing her wartime subjects in a less than heroic and all-American light. But that is not the point. Rather, Malcolm’s “grotesque” makes me wonder: what exactly is it that this writer—so precisely venerated for the meaning she can make from the physical details of her subjects and their settings—sees when she looks at a body, its deportment and circumstance, whether in reality or in a photograph?

From left: Malcolm’s father, Malcolm’s sister Marie, fifteen-year-old Malcolm, and Malcolm’s mother. Taken June 12, 1949, at the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Courtesy Janet Malcolm and Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Malcolm’s first book about photography offers some insight. Diana and Nikon was published in 1980 and collected her New Yorker essays on the medium to date. This book has never attained the status of Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) or Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980), but in some ways it is more modern than both. Malcolm engages spiritedly, not always approvingly, with the new movements in photography of the 1970s: a snapshot aesthetic, the rise of color, even the advent of appropriative art. It seems she had at one point considered setting up as a portrait photographer—her daughter Anne discovered a draft price list for her services—and in Diana and Nikon she approaches photography from the perspective of an artist, examining the difficulties of sub­ject choice, the urges and judgments behind a style.

This doesn’t make Malcolm a better photography critic than Sontag or Barthes. Her general pronouncements can sound banal: “Taking a picture is a transformative act,” she writes in the introduc­tion to Burdock, a book of her own photographs of a favorite plant species. She is given at times to hard distinctions that will not hold: about the essential modesty or serenity of European photography when judged against the American or the supposed impossibility of making art as such in the United States. Here and there she seems not to know when a style is a style, as in the gold-embossed leather-look cover of William Eggleston’s Guide (1976), which Malcolm takes for high-art pretense instead of deliberate photo-album kitsch.

What makes Malcolm’s writing on photography worth reading is first, I think, the confidence and acuity with which she notices things—as if staring at photographs is a training for the close looking at people in which she is about to become expert. And sec­ond, the way this noticing is sometimes too much for her, as she shifts from aesthetic evaluation to a sort of disgust, exaggeratedly expressed. You can see the first sort of noticing in her description of Richard Avedon’s celebrated 1955 Harper’s Bazaar spread of the model Dovima, in a Dior evening dress, posing with elephants at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. Malcolm knows why Avedon’s pho­tograph works (tones, gestures, interspecies rhymes) and why its 1930s precursor, an Edward Steichen image of three models with a white horse, does not (too static, too crowded). But through Malcolm’s writing about Avedon, another tendency, or susceptibil­ity, comes out: a curious distaste for imagery that she views as too unruly or intimate. She seems genuinely appalled by his turn for a time in the 1960s toward an extremely detailed and unflattering style of portraiture. Here Malcolm’s language shifts, referring to a sitter who looked like a “mental defective,” to Avedon’s “stylized, strident, brutal, bitter” imagery, which recalls the “repulsively fat thighs” of women in Rembrandt. Degrading, repellant, merciless: “One finally balks at the low sensationalism that is being offered as high seriousness.” All this because Avedon has allowed us to see Truman Capote’s stubble or that Edmund Wilson’s pants don’t fit.

One starts to wonder what Malcolm is afraid of, or perhaps despises, in such pictures. Or is it in the bodies depicted? A set piece for her discomfiture comes in a 1979 essay about the pho­tographer Walker Evans. Malcolm is looking at two of four photo­graphs Evans made in 1936 of Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of a sharecropper with whom he and James Agee were staying. There are well-known differences between these portraits: Burroughs appearing open and calm, then tight-lipped and frowning. But Malcolm goes further, in a tone not fully explained by the fact she is contrasting a published version from 1938 with the image in a new (and better-printed) book. First: “The 1938 version shows a young woman of the most delicate, aristocratic beauty, with ele­gant bones, clear eyes, and smooth white skin, gazing confidently into the camera with a slight smile of humorous indomitability on her lips.” Turning to the version in Walker Evans: First and Last, Malcolm discovers “an ugly hag, her face covered with lines and wrinkles, her brow furrowed with anxiety, her mouth set in a bitter line, her eyes looking out in expectation of seeing nothing good.” She is, Malcolm concludes, “a defeated and desexed being.” It’s hard to say which of these descriptions is the stranger: Aristocrat or hag—are these the only options?

She possessed a particular ado­lescent (not only adolescent) confusion between beauty and moral­ity.

Am I overdoing things by drawing attention to Malcolm’s vocab­ulary? Is this, as she writes while recalling her father, “an example of my sensing something real rather than imagining things”? Or is there in her writing a constant staging of such scenes of seeing and judging, with the corollary of potential distortion? I’m reminded again of the ways she “senses” something about her interviewees in her most precise and daring New Yorker profiles. The “sense of quotation mark” that hovers in postmodernist painter David Salle’s studio—Malcolm frankly admits that she may have imagined it. The “sense of absences” in the austere loft of critic Rosalind Krauss, in a 1986 piece about Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy, that makes even Malcolm feel blowsy, tasteless, “nice.” In the same essay, these visual impressions: the critic and curator John Coplans, whose loft has the air of a man who no longer lives with a woman; sculptor Richard Serra’s resemblance to “someone from a small American rural community.” In Diana and Nikon, Malcolm claims that “the camera is simply not the subtle and powerful instrument of descrip­tion that the pen is.” Her skill as a reporter depends on description: short, young (or young-seeming), thin, pretty, vivid, jumpy, with or without a sense of quotation marks around the person or the place she inhabits. But the case is different when a reader also sees what Malcolm sees—and may arrive at quite other conclusions.

too much or too little: it sometimes seems that Malcolm’s accounts of photographed women hold them to some cruel standard of beauty and taste that is used to signal various merits or deficits of character. Reading for the first time, recently, The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s 1994 book about the biographical puzzle around Sylvia Plath, I was struck by her disappointment—even disapproval—when faced with images of the poet: “photographs of Plath as a vacuous girl of the fifties.” This unattractive blankness seemed to me simply the obverse of the sour complaints about Plath by the Ted Hughes camp: that she was too loud, too assertive, too large in appetite, in the end too American in a different sense from the one Malcolm means when she paints the young—she was always young—Plath as a conventional girl of the Eisenhower era.

The pretext of the Plath book is Anne Stevenson’s controver­sial 1989 biography Bitter Fame, which some who knew Plath considered, in its criticism of the poet, to be too influenced by Hughes’s sister Olwyn (whom the finished book also failed to sat­isfy). Stevenson is the object of one of Malcolm’s more devastat­ing visual appraisals. The two women meet in an Oxford reading room that Malcolm finds dingy and grim—very English, to her mind. The American Stevenson has taken on aspects of her setting: “Anne herself, who had come out of the elevator with a mackin­tosh over her arm, wearing sensible short boots and silver-rimmed glasses that gave her face a somewhat prim and serene look, also seemed unnecessarily drab.” This is the second image in an Allie Mae Burroughs–style before-and-after. Anne Stevenson was a year ahead of Malcolm at the University of Michigan, where she “had once been pointed out to me on the street: thin and pretty, with an atmosphere of awkward intensity and passion about her, ges­ticulating, surrounded by interesting-looking boys.” Here we get the tone and drift of Still Pictures a few decades early. The young Stevenson’s “artiness,” Malcolm writes, seemed to promise—at least in terms of style—a way to escape the killing conventions and sexual pretenses of the period. As Malcolm puts it, in America the nineteenth century ended only in the 1960s: “Sylvia Plath and Anne Stevenson and I came of age in the period when the need to keep up the pretense was especially strong.”

Family snapshots, the works of great photographers, detail and appearance in her journalistic writing, middle-aged rue when recalling the faint-hearted rebellions of youth: this curving path through Malcolm’s work takes us back to something fundamental but almost unstated in Still Pictures. She possessed a particular ado­lescent (not only adolescent) confusion between beauty and moral­ity. Her memoir gives the impression that as a young woman in the 1950s Malcolm lived up neither to the conventions of femininity for which she damns Plath nor to the ideal of youthful revolt then forming in America. (In a 2003 essay about Gertrude Stein, she says her rebellions consisted in reading certain gay authors—not yet widely known as such—and frequenting the modernist home-decor store Design Research. No wonder she judges the sitters for her prose portraits by the qualities of lighting and soft furnishings. Her “About the House” columns for The New Yorker are sometimes hard-edged in topic and tone: she might tell us as much about Marcel Duchamp and industrial design as home décor.) In a sec­tion of Still Pictures titled “Francine,” Malcolm recalls first “a girl in junior high school named Connie Munez, who was like the heroine of a fairy tale: preternaturally beautiful, extraordinarily kind, and without much character.” Malcolm is unsure why this attractive, uninteresting girl has hung around in her mind, except in oppo­sition to Francine Reese, a “bad girl” into whose “orbit of rule-breaking chaos” Malcolm was briefly drawn. Invited to a reception at a fancy Park Avenue apartment, Francine ran mildly amok, with the good-girl Malcolm in tow.

There are other versions of Connie and Francine in Still Pictures, and elsewhere in Malcolm’s work: models for her own self-fashioning, tests of her ability to judge by appearance. In the Connie category there is Pat Patrick: a compact, smiling blond girl with whom Malcolm was in love (without having a name for it) in her late teens. Pat glowed at summer camp but was rich and conventional. Plath occupied both positions, Connie and Francine.

She was at first too good to be true—Malcolm dislikes a striver—and then a bad girl in all the wrong ways. (Elizabeth Hardwick on Plath: “She has the rarity of being, in her work at least, never a ‘nice person.’”) Anne Stevenson had been a tasteful, “arty” ver­sion of the bad-girl rebel; her later dreariness is meant to correlate with weakness of craft and character. In The Silent Woman, the most egregious example of letting oneself go is the art historian and curator Trevor Thomas, Plath’s downstairs neighbor in 1963 and likely the last person to see her before her suicide. Malcolm gives us a startlingly unkind portrait of Thomas—a gay man whose career had been blighted by homophobia—that hinges on her dis­taste when visiting his cluttered, unclean home. In Malcolm’s large canon of aesthetic judgments that are also ethical and intellectual judgments, Thomas is the negative of Rosalind Krauss, a person defined by his failure to subtract.

There is a great deal more in Still Pictures than pointed assess­ments of personality based on appearance or style of being. Malcolm has surely revealed in Still Pictures something essential and vexed about herself and her written or writing “I”—that all frequently depends on close looking, and close looking involves her in a type of necessary cruelty for which her particular background prepared her well. Sometimes she seems to know when her clarity has curdled into something more stringent; similarly, her insights sometimes turn fantastical. Sometimes an entire essay turns on the very question: is Janet Malcolm seeing what she thinks she is see­ing? And then we see the writer—her prejudices, her limitations, her vulnerabilities—more precisely than she may have hoped.

Brian Dillon is the author of the forthcoming Affinities: On Art and Fascination. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love.
Originally published:
March 27, 2023

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