I found Janet Malcolm’s first book, her 1980 essay collection Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Art of Photography, because I was reading all of her books that were available at the University of Montana library. I started with her criticism and journalism on subjects closer to my wheelhouse—The Silent Woman, about Sylvia Plath’s biographers, and The Journalist and the Murderer, about the surreal ethics of true crime—and grew addicted to her weird and brilliant writing. I would read her on anything. I had (and still have) no more than a basic knowledge of fine art photography and very little interest in it; nevertheless Diana and Nikon enthralled me. Compiled from Malcolm’s photography column in the New Yorker, Diana and Nikon works with utter (and sometimes peculiar) precision and decisive authority while at the same time doubling back on itself, retreading ideas and refining them. It provides an enchanting glimpse of the critic at work over time.
I often recommend the book to students, but I don’t think any of them have read it, primarily because it is depressingly out of print. I don’t even own a copy. After reading it the first time, I checked out Susan Sontag’s On Photography, hoping for more of the same and knowing that it was considered a classic of criticism on the form. I was a bit let down. I remember loving but distrusting Sontag’s sweeping aphorisms, thinking her art criticism lacked rigor and her abstract pronouncements seemed to come out of nowhere.
This was probably because I had already subconsciously apprenticed myself to Malcolm, whose many short, eccentric books are anything but abstract. They are for the most part thorough close readings of some subject of intense fascination, though rarely one with much flash: psychoanalysis, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the vagaries of strange court cases, and of course the contours of American art photography. Malcolm trades in block quotes and long descriptions, a sort of documentary style of criticism that illustrates while it casts judgment. This tendency is reinforced in Diana and Nikon when Malcolm describes every detail of a photograph that we can see on the same page. She writes of “a genteelly wholesome meal” in a William Eggleston photograph: “a slice of ham and a helping of over-cooked green beans; various side dishes of rolls, butter, baked potato; salad drenched with ‘French’ dressing; and a glass of ice tea.” This description has an air of compulsive, pleasing redundancy, since the picture is printed directly above it.
Even more satisfying is when Malcolm catalogues the details evoking a mood, style, school, or moment. She describes art deco as deriving “from Cubism, technological design, the Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism, American Indian Art, and Aztec architecture, as well as from some of the period’s more sinister political movements.” After claiming Eggleston’s oeuvre takes us into “Photo-Realist country,” she compiles as an energetic aside a list of all the recurring images marking the borders of that theoretical land: “the presence of recently made structures, machines, and objects”; “people dressed in clothes of the cheap, synthetic, democratic sort”; “the signs and leavings of fast food, fast gas, fast obsolescence”; etc.
Although the sensory delights of her lists and surprising descriptions are my favorite things about reading Malcolm, this stubborn focus on details is probably one reason why, despite her status as one of this era’s master critics, Diana and Nikon is so difficult to get your hands on. We can compare Malcolm and Sontag on the same topic: the inherent uncanny nature of photography. Malcolm describes it with a characteristic verbosity, writing of “the camera’s formidable capacity for imposing disorder on reality—for transforming, say, a serene gathering of nice-looking people in pleasant surroundings . . . into a chaotic mess of lamp cords, rumpled Kleenexes, ugly food, ill-fitting clothes, grotesque gestures, and vapid expressions.” Sontag, on the other hand, stays almost exclusively in the realm of the abstract and theoretical. “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise,” she writes, “in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” This abstract framework has encouraged the ubiquity of Sontag’s essays on photography (the one that quotation comes from, “Melancholy Objects,” is readily available on the internet), since her theories can be endlessly reapplied to new cultural phenomena. But I think comparing these passages—and the relative popularity of their sources—also speaks to the paradoxical difficulty, even the experimental quality, of precision, the radical ambition in describing exactly what one sees and thinks rather than creating a grand, unified theory.
(If this cherry-picking of quotations from the two authors reads like a straw man argument, that might be. Malcolm writes in aphorisms too, though they are more wordy and qualified than Sontag’s. “If ‘the camera doesn’t lie,’ neither is it inclined to tell the truth,” Malcolm writes, “since it can reflect only the usually ambiguous, and sometimes outright deceitful, surface of reality.”)
In this way Malcolm reminds me of the most unassuming of modernists, Elizabeth Bishop, whose poems, whether about a gas station, an ugly painting, an antique map, Robinson Crusoe’s island, or an imagined seaside “monument,” are dense with description, with little room for rhetorical flourishes. (What ones there are have become famous, like the first line of “Filling Station”: “Oh, but it is dirty!”) In her close attention, Bishop reveals how strange is the surface of everyday life, how profound the mundane snapshots of experience, how many irreconcilable details stick in our memories. She also writes a commentary about the process of poetry and the nature of art. In her torquing description of a sculpture made of wooden boxes in “The Monument,” she seems to speak about the homely, durable shape of the lyric poem: “It may be solid, may be hollow / . . . But roughly but adequately it can shelter / what is within.”
This metacommentary is common to Malcolm’s work, too—in her agonizing over the legitimacy of photography as art she seems also to be considering her own task as a critic. Throughout Diana and Nikon she focuses not on the possibilities in photography but on its limitations, writing of the photographer Robert Frank that “the camera’s profound misanthropy . . . its nasty preference for precisely those facets of our nature that we most wish to disown . . . are the real subjects of Frank’s pictures.” Malcolm puts forth that the only way to avoid this misanthropy (if a photographer doesn’t want to lean into it) is to imitate the already established forms of painting, thus making photography a lesser art. At one point she seems to spell out the subtext of the book, writing that “photography is the (uppity) housemaid of painting (as journalism and criticism are the poor relations of poetry and fiction.)” She is referring to how, when journalism and criticism make their claims to art, they have to borrow the strategies of fiction and poetry, and, to complicate things further, how often journalism and criticism are explicitly about other kinds of literary art. But Malcolm’s work itself is a testament to the unique possibilities in a nonfiction form, particularly to show the writer’s mind at work, to level with the reader, to wrestle with the impossible task of translating thought into words.
Malcolm writes endearingly in the preface to Diana and Nikon that as she wrote the essays in it her view on photography grew and changed. “I have been hacking away at the enigma of photography,” she writes. “It is only about midway through the volume that I think I begin to get a hold of the subject.” Malcolm’s allowance that she might be wrong, her jangling juxtaposition of early theories and contradictory later ones, her examination of the activity of her own thoughts is what I most seek to emulate in my own work. (Sontag undertook similar acts of self-revision, revisiting and in some cases refuting her ideas on photography in Regarding the Pain of Others, which might explain why I prefer late Sontag to early.) It is why, despite Malcolm never probing her autobiography in her work, I have such affection for Malcolm as a person and for her lofty, lucid, and playful voice. In the details she collects and chooses to zoom in on I get such a complete vision of the writer at her desk and her ravenous, roving viewfinder of a mind.
Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. She teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis.