Janet Malcolm’s Inescapable Truthfulness

Leaves through ice
Pondbottom leaves through ice

At the New Yorker’s “What We’re Reading” blog, Sasha Weiss articulates some of the many reasons I so enjoy Janet Malcolm:

Reading Janet Malcolm’s essay on the German photographer Thomas Struth (it originally appeared in the magazine, and is collected in her recent book “Forty-one False Starts”), I’m struck by the similarity of her eye to that of a camera. As she says, in what could be a buried allusion to her own style, “Photography is a medium of inescapable truthfulness. The camera doesn’t know how to lie.” Her prose gets close to the camera’s flat, dispassionate, all-encompassing gaze. Malcolm, who was the magazine’s photography critic for a number of years, sees more than most people can, and, in the same way that a photo does, includes details that seem incidental—say, the skimpy, pretentious portions at a restaurant where she eats with Struth. But the details accumulate so that they fill out the background of the central subject, much as they would in a photograph (in another subtly self-reflexive moment in the piece, she talks about the importance of background for portrait photographers, August Sander in particular. The environment in which he poses his subjects, she tells us, is crucial to our sensation that he is stealing his subjects’ souls).

Very little escapes her scrutinizing, cool, highly trained eye. That she exposes her subjects to the reader, and to themselves, can cause discomfort. But the writer’s eye is of course not mechanical like the camera’s: the details the writer includes are much more consciously selected (the photographer selects, too, but once a photograph is framed, a detail that chances to be there might be inadvertently preserved). The writer’s inclusions inevitably reveal her prejudices, her sensibility. Malcolm exposes herself, too.

Here’s a bit of the Malcolm piece on Struth, “Depth of Field“:

In one of our talks, Struth told me that when he was in high school he belonged to a little band of classmates—four boys and four girls—who spent all their time together and were determined not to be like their parents, whose recoil from the catastrophe of the war had taken the form of ultra-conventional behavior and a devotion to what was “safe and clean.” Later, as I was leafing through a book of Struth’s photographs, this phrase came floating to mind, for there is a sense in which it describes the world of Struth’s huge, handsome pictures, from which the dangerous and dirty is conspicuously absent. “Dallas Parking Lot” (2001), for example, a magnificent composition of cool grays and icy blues and warm browns that Struth extracted from the ugly mess of the construction boom in Dallas, shows a rooftop parking lot in early-morning near-emptiness and after-rain freshness, over which pristine glass high-rise buildings hover like benign guardians of the sleeping city’s security.

from What We’re Reading: Janet Malcolm, ‘Schottenfreude,’ Thomas Nagel, ‘Vanity Fair’. That particular installment also includes a nice Joshua Rothman quick take on Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere.

Other bits here at Neuron Culture that touch on Malcolm:

The Writer’s Dilemma: What to Toss

My Top 5 (or 10) Longreads of 2011 | David Dobbs’s NEURON CULTURE

Photo by the author

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