Photography—the nature of images, and the nature of documentation, of cataloging, of representation—was one of Janet Malcolm’s key subjects, from her first book of criticism, Diana and Nikon, to her own work as a photographer. This latter work is greatly overshadowed by her lasting contribution to written culture—her books In the Freud Archives, The Journalist and the Murderer, and The Silent Woman, among others, being some of the most incisive critical works about the ethics of writing. (Already, a digression: I found the recent splash-up over Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person”—namely the essay published in Slate by Alexis Nowicki, who claimed that a personal relationship she had was the inspiration for the viral hit story—reenforced my sense of sadness over Malcolm’s recent passing. Not that I felt that she would have necessarily written a word about the incident, but sadness at the fact that it was no longer possible she’d jump into the conversation.) Reading Diana and Nikon in the past week, I was reminded of the slim volume of photographs Malcolm published in 2008, Burdock.
Burdock is a study of leaves Malcolm photographed over three summers in the Berkshires. These large leaves are presented as highly-detailed works of documentary and art. (It was this summer that I found myself in a position of despair, realizing that I could no longer look at any nature photograph without thinking of climate crisis, which has turned nature photography into a monument for a time-bomb.) The leaves are posed simply, without ornamentation and seemingly without context. As in Malcolm’s writing, it is in the details of the subject that makes the work unique.
Writing of Richard Avedon, one of the great photographers—whom Malcolm returned to as a subject several times in Diana and Nikon—Malcolm points to the way that Avedon’s most iconic works passed through several stages, from the early portraits “characterized by their aliveness and (often exaggerated) expressiveness, and by the photographer’s conception of the subject as the embodiment of what he does” (44) to the shift towards the blunt, somewhat intimidating works that hold the “Avedon style.”
“His subjects become older, and his camera dwells on the horrible things that age can do to people’s faces—on the flabby flesh, the slack skin, the ugly growths, the puffy eyes, the knotted necks, the aimless wrinkles, the fearful and anxious set of the mouth, the marks left by sickness, madness, alcoholism, and irreversible disappointment. These pictures of people who no longer care how they look—or shouldn’t if they do—were taken under the glare of strobe lights or in bright daylight, to pick out every degrading and disgusting detail; were often angled from below, to reveal the collapse of chin into formless flaccidity or to accentuate the tense, death-rattle attenuation of neck; and were printed in savage black contrast.” (44-45)
This “horrible,” “collapse,” and “savage” photography is on display in Burdock. There is no looking away from a leaf that has been eaten into, been torn, been collapsing in on itself, or at the very least has been plucked from its landscape. The damaged spots on the leaves are the same spots we have seen over and over: on our hands and faces, in old photographs and medical charts, in documentary footage and reconstructions of “lost” or damaged films. Their lives can be read on the surface of their bodies.
Malcolm’s burdock leaves show they owe as much to Avedon photographs as much as they do fine lacework or silhouettes. The body of the leaf can be exposed with the same bluntness as a nude portrait, a passport photograph, or a patient on a table. The leaf is documented, almost as in an experiment. One can see shadows, or perhaps the blurred aura of the leaf’s green on the white backdrop. This returns us to the Avedon comparison (an influence Malcolm openly admits in the introduction to this volume) and shows the soft corners—the bleeding edge—of Malcolm’s photography as opposed to the tight, highly contrasting, black and white portraits Avedon was known for, in which the subject is as distinct from the background as a thick, black-lined cartoon. Malcolm’s effect is that of Modernist pastels. The composition of leaves also brings to mind Mapplethorpe’s late photographs of flowers, which display a rich physicality and depth, or the iconic paintings of Georgia O’Keefe.
And while thinking of O’Keefe, we are reminded of Stieglitz, who floats throughout Diana and Nikon, including a review of a volume of photographs of O’Keefe (which O’Keefe would not let Malcolm reproduce images from in her volume). One of the key points in the review is the effect that the crop, the frame of the image, can have in changing the impact of the work. Discussing these nude portraits, Malcolm writes that, in contrast to Stieglitz’s image as “pompous, sententious, petulant, cold, sexless,” “The man who took the pictures of O’Keefe is a person of evident warmth, passion, erotic imaginativeness and assured masculinity.”
“One Stieglitz nude, of 1918 (never before published)—a torso cropped at the chest and mid-thigh—stands out from the rest in its blunt sexuality. The picture is taken from below, from a gynecologist’s vantage point. […] What gives the picture its tremendous erotic impact is, paradoxically, the very thing that saves it from being lewd and unprintable in an art book. The photograph is printed to darken out the particulars of the genitals: the dark pubic hair merges with the darkness below and forms an enormous black place at the center of the picture which dominates the composition—drags the eye to itself, as an abyss compels the gaze of the vertiginous into its fathomless darkness” (133-134).
(She returns to this focus on the crop in a discussion of Edward Weston’s photograph Torso of Neil throughout Diana and Nikon, and later in a discussion of the photographs of Herta Hilscher-Wittegnstein, both of which concern the representation of the body and its emotional effects.) The crop focuses on a subject—a movement of the eye that performs a slight-of-hand for the viewer, or directs a viewer’s focus like a traffic cone. Malcolm’s photographs of burdock leaves often leave out the bottle in which they were placed to stand tall, but the hinting mouth of the bottle appears in a few of them, and lingers there like something we are not supposed to be seeing, like the mixing of drugs in a test tube.
The clinical nature of Malcolm’s photographs demonstrates a paradoxical frame of mind: documenting the natural world, and in doing so, removing it to a new context, one in which it decays and spends its final moments apart from its natural location. But is this pinning down not the job of a writer? Certainly, as one who has worked as a passport photographer, one can see the difficulty of representing the subject in a recognizable way while presenting the subject removed from real-world context through a sterile background. In Diana and Nikon, Malcolm remarks about the selection process of photographs—namely, there is a moment before and after the photograph was taken, and often there are photographs that were almost the “iconic” photograph, but were not quite right. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem, PA.,” Malcolm writes not only of alternate photographs made by Walker Evans (multiple versions of iconic works, as opposed to Stieglitz and his theoretical “one-take” masterwork, The Steerage,” discussed in the opening of Diana and Nikon) but also of the ability for a photograph’s printing and editing to change the context and meaning of the photograph itself. Using Evans’s photograph of a sharecropper, Malcolm points to the fact that the image that was widely disseminated and used in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is, in fact, retouched and printed in a manner that blunts the “horror” elements discussed earlier. The photograph as printed (and given “iconic” status) “betrays” the text written by James Agee. Photography, then, has the ability to contort the perception or experience of reality. (This becomes explicit in the playful spirit of surrealist photographers, or disturbingly in bad reportage.) The pose of Malcolm’s leaves rarely allows for this kind of betrayal or seduction, unless it is consciously playing with these ideas, as in one photograph of a curved leaf folding over, looking both as if it is closing and opening at the same time.
Malcolm’s camera came to the leaves with the same pointedness as her pen came to sentences. The works reproduced in Burdock will perhaps seem simple and small at a first glance, but further inspection demonstrates the Malcolm style that many readers admired throughout her life and work.