What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, September 30, 2011

September 26, 2011 Issue

Janet Malcolm’s "Depth of Field," in this week’s issue of the magazine, is unlike any “Annals of Art” piece I’ve ever read. Most “Annals of Art” stories are exercises in appreciation. The artists aren’t grilled; the writers aren’t angry (if they are, they don’t say so). But in “Depth of Field,” Malcolm pounces on something her subject, the photographer Thomas Struth, says in casual conversation over lunch, sharply questions him, and turns it into an object lesson in “journalistic opportunism.” She also admits to “rather crossly” leaving Struth at a photo-shoot that seemed to her to drag on too long. And she mocks Struth’s recent portrait of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, taken at Windsor Castle, saying, “My first impression was of a vaguely familiar elderly couple posing for formal portrait in a corner of the palatial Minneapolis hotel ballroom where there fiftieth wedding anniversary is being celebrated.” All of these moves, it seems to me, are against Malcolm’s interest to report. They put her in an unfavorable light, making her appear petty, crotchety, and negative. Yet, to her credit, she doesn’t repress them; she includes them. It’s her psychology coming out, and she lets it come out. As a result, her piece seems truer than most other art writings - the prose equivalent of a very precise photo shot through the filter of her own fine-tuned, deconstructionist sensibility. I found it riveting, especially the way she swings around to the opposite point of view, admitting she was wrong to be cross at Struth, showing Struth to be good natured, even finding the portrait of Elizabeth and Philip to be not so bad after all. She says, “Gradually the royal couple came into focus as such, and the photograph assumed its own identity as a work by Struth, the plethora of its details somehow tamed to serve a composition of satisfying serenity and readability.” The same could be said about “Depth of Field.” At first, after I’d finished reading it, I didn’t know what to make of it. I found it both irritating and elating. But gradually, like Struth’s picture of the royal couple, it came into focus and assumed its own identity as a work by Malcolm, an artful journalistic portrait of an artful photographic portraitist.

Credit: The above photograph is Thomas Struth's portrait of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh; it appears in the September 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker as an illustration for Janet Malcolm's "Depth of Field."

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