Book Review: Diana & Nikon by Janet Malcolm

In her collected writings on photography, New Yorker staff writer Janet Malcolm accomplishes what many critics set out to do but few achieve. She illuminates much that is true about the medium in a unique, eloquent voice that is piercingly intelligent and bluntly honest.

Although this collection was originally published forty years ago, the passage of time has not lessened its impact and relevancy. These pieces were originally published in The New Yorker, along with The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, and they are presented here in chronological order. (The expanded edition ranges from 1975 to 1996.) There are 16 essays total—11 in the original, plus 5 for the expanded edition. Most start out as reviews of specific books or exhibits, using those as jumping-off points to examine larger questions.

One of the pleasures of the book is seeing her ideas and views develop and evolve over the course of the book. Each question she asks leads her to another deeper, more complex question. (“Questions are what matter, of course,” Malcolm writes.) Recurring themes include the complex and somewhat symbiotic relationship of painting to photography, the fundamental nature of photography and its ability to capture “truth,” issues of form and content within the context of photography, and the struggle to situate photography within the arts.

Malcolm expresses little interest in the politics of photography. She doesn’t traffic in holier-than-thou writerly critiques of photographic practices. Nor does she rhapsodize about the power of photography to bear witness or bring about social change. She’s much more interested in exploring the connections between Abstract Expressionism and Harry Callahan’s formal innovations, Jackson Pollack’s Action Painting technique and the incessant snapping of Garry Winogrand’s Leica, early pictorialism and Diane Arbus’s portraits. Malcolm is a strong proponent of the argument, popular in New York art critic circles at the time, that innovations in painting preceded and influenced innovations in photography. That point of view is very much up for debate, but she makes her case convincingly.

Malcolm also wades into the early debates surrounding the use of color in fine art photography via William Eggleston and ruminates on the elegant cruelty of Richard Avedon’s portraits. She was one of the first critics to connect the dots between Walker Evans’s work and Robert Frank’s and to truly elucidate Evans’s impact on Frank.

The influence of MoMA’s legendary photography curator John Szarkowski is present throughout. The title essay directly addresses Szarkowski’s classic book The Photographer’s Eye, which inspires Malcolm to reexamine some of her beliefs about photography. Looking at The Photographer’s Eye, Malcolm writes, “Photography went Modernist not…when it began to imitate modern abstract art but when it began to study snapshots.” It is here that Malcolm starts to view the camera as a democratizing instrument, and she asserts that attempts to re-establish the dividing line between the refined artist and the untrained amateur (e.g., by segueing into alternative processes and camera-less methods) only move those practitioners further away from the genuine nature of photography.

The last two essays, posthumous considerations of Diane Arbus and E.J. Bellocq respectively, continue Malcolm’s own evolution as a writer towards in-depth journalistic profiles. The former is an excellent consideration of Arbus’s work that uses quotes from her writings to give insight into the images (the how and why behind their creation). The latter involves a posthumous investigation of the enigmatic Bellocq, with input from Szarkowski, Lee Friedlander, and former New Orleans Museum of Art curator Steven Maklansky.

Malcolm still writes for The New Yorker on a variety of topics. She contributed an intelligent and in-depth profile of Thomas Struth in 2011 that goes deeper than most full-length biographies in addressing fundamental questions around the creative process of an artist. The essay was reprinted in her 2013 collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, which is well worth seeking out as well.

Art criticism is much more likely to be read by academics, curators, aficionados, and collectors than artists, but that does a disservice to Malcolm’s work. Diana & Nikon holds relevancy for photographers–moreso than most criticism, in my opinion–and I believe that it is beneficial for photographers to familiarize themselves with essential works of criticism, even if their ideas only indirectly manifest themselves in one’s work. Even so, in these pages, Malcolm herself asserts that those benefits are limited, since so much of photography, in her view, depends upon being present in the moment, placing oneself in the right place at the right time, capturing the right expression—and ultimately, resigning yourself to technology and chance.

Diana & Nikon: Essays on Photography (Expanded Edition) by Janet Malcolm. Aperture, 1997. 224 pages. Hardcover.

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