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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Janet Malcolm's "Forty-one False Starts" - Part II

In late 2003, two remarkable Diane Arbus exhibitions (and accompanying catalogs) – the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Diane Arbus Revelations and Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art’s Diane Arbus: Family Albums - attracted the attention of two of America’s greatest critical writers – Janet Malcolm and Judith Thurman. Thurman’s review, "Exposure Time," appeared in the October 13, 2003, New Yorker, and was later included in her superb Cleopatra’s Nose (2007). Malcolm’s piece was originally published in the January 15, 2004, New York Review of Books, and now, nine years later, wonderfully reappears in her excellent new collection Forty-one False Starts. Both pieces are brilliant. It’s interesting to compare them, as much for what they may tell about Malcolm’s and Thurman’s style, as for what they reveal about Arbus’s work. (I’m as interested in the way Malcolm and Thurman write as I am in the way Arbus took pictures.)

The first thing to note is that Thurman’s piece is a book review; it considers only the exhibition catalogs. In contrast, Malcolm’s review covers both the exhibitions and the catalogs. This is a significant difference that accrues to Malcolm’s benefit. Her critical approach thrives on comparative analysis. In her “Good Pictures,” she pounces on a fascinating discrepancy between the Family Albums exhibition and the Family Albums catalogue and uses it to illustrate what constitutes, in her words, “true Arbus photographs.” I’m referring to the point late in Malcolm’s narrative in which she reports that the younger Matthaei daughter, Leslie, “suddenly decided she didn’t want any pictures of herself published.” As Malcolm explains, this meant that Arbus’s Leslie portraits were viewable only at the show, not in the catalog. This fact generates a quintessentially Malcolmian line: “When I went to see the Mount Holyoke show, I naturally sought out the missing pictures of Leslie and immediately understood why she had not wanted them preserved in a book.” I find that sentence thrilling for at least three reasons: (1) it shows Malcolm entering her narrative, making a story of her pursuit of a story; (2) it turns a trip to the gallery into a form of psychoanalytic inquiry (what is it about the portraits that Leslie is repressing?); (3) it creates a delicious anticipation of Malcolm’s description of what the Leslie portraits look like. With respect to this last point, Malcolm doesn’t disappoint. Immediately following the above-quoted sentence, she writes: “Leslie, an attractive girl, is the disobliging daughter, the Cordelia of the shoot. In almost every photograph, she sulks, glares, frowns, looks tense and grim and sometimes even outright malevolent.”

Malcolm then makes another brilliant analytic move – a comparison of the Leslie portraits with those of her older sister, Marcella. In what is perhaps the piece’s most memorable line, she writes, “Marcella gave Arbus what Leslie refused.” It’s like a line from a novel. Malcolm reads the pictures as a story about how Arbus made art from what appeared to be a hopelessly banal family photo shoot. In fact, earlier in “Good Pictures,” she says, “The uncut Matthaei contact sheets straightforwardly tell the story of Arbus’s two-day struggle with her commissions.” The art that emerged from this struggle are the two Marcella portraits. Malcolm describes them unforgettably:

The two portraits of Marcella that Lee and Pultz reproduce in the book are true Arbus photographs. They have the strangeness and uncanniness with which Arbus’s best work is tinged. They belong among the pictures of the man wearing a bra and stockings and the twins in corduroy dresses and the albino sword swallower and the nudist couple. Like these subjects, Marcella unwittingly collaborated with Arbus on her project of defamiliarization. The portraits of Marcella – one full-figure to the knees, and the other of head and torso – show a girl with long hair and bangs that come down over her eyes who is standing so erect and looking so straight ahead of her that she might be a caryatid. The fierce gravity of her strong features further enhances the sense of stone. Her short, sleeveless white dress of crocheted material, which might look tacky on another girl, looks like a costume from myth on this girl. To contrast the pictures of balky little Leslie with those of monumental Marcella is to understand something about the fictive nature of Arbus’s work. The pictures of Leslie are pictures that illustrate photography’s ready realism, its appetite for fact. They record the literal truth of Leslie’s fury and misery. The pictures of Marcella show the defeat of photography’s literalism. They take us far from the family gathering – indeed from any occasion but that of of the encounter between Arbus and Marcella in which the fiction of the photograph is forged.

Diane Arbus, "Untitled (Marcella Matthaei)," 1969

I confess, as much as I admire this passage for its extraordinary interpretative beauty and originality, I find it disorienting. Nothing that’s gone before it, in “Good Pictures,” prepares the reader for critical phrases such as “project of defamiliarization,” “the fictive nature of Arbus’s work,” and “the fiction of the photograph.” In fact, if you are reading the essays in Forty-one False Starts serially from the beginning, you will have already encountered Malcolm’s observation, in  “Depth of Field,” that “Photography is a medium of inescapable truthfulness.” I don’t know if it’s possible to reconcile these two views. “Inescapable truthfulness” would seem to preclude fictionalization, unless Malcolm is reading the Marcella portraits as a type of narrative truth. Perhaps she is. Recall that in her great essay, “Six Roses ou Cirrhose” (The New Yorker, January 24, 1983; included in her 1992 collection, The Purloined Clinic), she defines narrative truth as “the truth of literary art.” Perhaps “the fictive nature of Arbus’s work” and “the fiction of the photograph,” in the sense that Malcolm uses them in “Good Pictures,” means “the truth of photographic art.”

If you read Judith Thurman’s “Exposure Time” after you read Malcolm’s “Good Pictures,” you might think that Thurman missed the story. In a way, she did. Not only does she not mention the Leslie and Marcella portraits, she devotes only three lines to Diane Arbus: Family Albums (“The pictures she took for the album, which was never published, were commissioned by magazines or by private clients, and some were made for art’s sake. Like all her work, they explored the nature of closeness and disaffection, sameness and anomaly, belonging and exclusion: the tension between our sentimental expectations of what is supposed to be and the debacle of what is. Arbus put it more simply to Crookston: ‘I think all families are creepy in a way’”). Instead, Thurman focuses on Diane Arbus: Revelations, which she calls the “much more ambitious Arbus show.”

But Thurman has her own Arbus story to tell or, rather, more accurately, her own Arbus brief to argue. “Exposure Time” is a tour de force of descriptive analysis that powerfully defends Arbus against, in Thurman’s words, “the hostility to her transgressions.” Thurman quotes Susan Sontag’s accusation that Arbus explored “an appalling underworld” of the “deformed and mutilated.” In rebuttal, Thurman says, “The respect and sympathy for her freaks that Arbus expresses in her letters – particularly those to her children – and her apparently solicitous, ongoing engagement with them, is at odds with the view that she was exploiting their credulity.” Conceding that Arbus was “cunning and aggressive,” she adds, “but so are many photographers.” She says,

Photography was then, and still is, a macho profession, and if she took its machismo to greater extremes than her peers of either sex, it was in part to scourge her native timidity and to prove that she had the balls to join her subjects’ orgies, share their nudity, endure their stench, revel in their squalor, and break down their resistance with a seductively disarming or fierce and often sexualized persistence until she “got” a certain expression: defeat, fatigue, slackness, anomie, or demented joy.

Diane Arbus, "Untitled (7)," 1970-71

Rereading “Exposure Time,” I’m struck by the naturalness of Thurman’s style. She is much more natural than Malcolm. Her lines are longer, richer, more sensuous and vivid. For example, here from “Exposure Time,” is her wonderful description of Arbus’s great Untitled (7):

In one of her masterpieces, “Untitled (7),” the rural landscape seems bathed in the lowering and eerie radiance of an eclipse, and the misshapen figures of her brain-damaged subjects—descendants of Goya’s gargoyles—march across the frame with unsteady steps as if to the music of a piper one can’t hear. A grave child of indeterminate sex with a painted mustache and averted gaze holds hands with a masked old woman in a white shift. They are oblivious of—and in a way liberated from—Arbus’s gaze. After years of posing her subjects frontally, she had begun to prefer that they did not look at her. “I think I will see them more clearly,” she wrote to Amy, “if they are not watching me watching them.”

That “and the misshapen figures of her brain-damaged subjects – descendants of Goya’s gargoyles – march across the frame with unsteady steps as if to the music of a piper one can’t hear” is very fine.

“Exposure Time” is more descriptive; “Good Pictures” is more analytical. Both are terrific - two of my all-time favorite critical pieces. It’s good to see them preserved between hard covers.

(This the second part of a four-part review of Janet Malcolm's Forty-one False Starts.) 

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