Introduction

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 Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

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


Is Janet Malcolm’s view of Irving Penn’s photography a case of pay attention to what I do, not what I say? I think so. In her early essay on Penn, “Certainties and Possibilities” (The New Yorker, August 4, 1975; included in her 1980 collection Diana and Nikon), a review of a MoMA exhibition of Penn’s photographs of cigarette butts, she says, “Penn’s butts efface reality.” It’s one of the most devastating (and memorable) art criticisms I’ve ever read. What I treasure in art is its realism – depiction of, in Edward Weston’s famous words, “the thing itself.” Here’s a photographer, Malcolm says, pointing at Penn, who uses his camera – that most accurate of devices - not to capture reality, but to erase it. It’s an audacious claim, yet Malcolm’s piece persuasively makes the case:

Penn’s pictures of butts exhibit all the rough oddity of the found art object that emerges from the enlargement of a murky detail in a torn, unregarded snapshot or of a quaintly drab illustration in an old textbook; they partake of the transformation that quilts and ship propellers and industrial tools undergo when they are wrested from their functional context and put on show for their aesthetic qualities. And they suffer from the same paradoxical devitalization that comes over useful objects when they are no longer in use. The tacky machine-made synthetic comforter on the bed has more connection with life – is more genuine, in its way – than the handsome antique quilt that hangs on the wall as if it were a painting, and in this respect Penn’s sleek pictures of clothes and caviar in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, far from paling before the rough vigor of his pictures in the museum show, present a kind of rebuke to the latter’s false vernacularism.

Irving Penn, "Cigarette No. 86," 1972
Malcolm, in her “Certainties and Possibilities,” also looks at Penn’s portraits. She says that they are “first of all Penns and only incidentally pictures of individuals.” She says, in what is, for me, her clinching argument,

Penn removes people from their own context and treats them like botanical or zoological specimens. He lures them into his studio, sits them on cloth-draped structures, subjects them to a north light that shadows half of each face, and sometimes literally pushes them into a corner that his brutal direction has put them emotionally.

Malcolm quotes from Penn’s World in a Small Room (1974), in which he says, “Taking people away from their natural circumstances and putting them into the studio in front of a camera did not simply isolate them, it transformed them.” Yes, Penn’s method is transformative, but not in a good way, Malcolm seems to say, in “Certainties and Possibilities.” Looking at Worlds in a Small Room’s pictures of artificially posed Peruvian Indians, Spanish gypsies, San Francisco Hell’s Angels, etc., I agree. They are, to use Malcolm’s excellent word, devitalized.

In her “Nudes Without Desire” (The New York Review of Books, April 11, 2002; included in her splendid new collection Forty-one False Starts), Malcolm continues her critique of Penn’s transformative approach. This time her subjects are two shows of Penn’s photograph’s of female nudes – the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes, 1949-50 and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Dancer: 1999 Nudes by Irving Penn. Regarding Earthly Bodies, Malcolm says, “The photographs immediately raise questions about their making.” She describes Penn’s “darkroom hocus-pocus” as follows:

Step one was to obliterate the image by overexposing the printing paper to such a degree that it turned completely black in the developer. Step two was to put the black paper into a bleach solution that turned it white. Step Three was to put the white paper into a solution that coaxed back the image, but only up to a point – the point where the earthly bodies exhibit an unearthly pallor and, in certain cases (such as the catalog cover picture), a flat abstractness that human bodies assume only in primitive and modernist art.

Once again, according to Malcolm, Penn has produced a series of devitalized (“flat,” “unearthly”) images. This isn’t the only similarity with his butt pictures. The type of body he’s chosen to photograph is ugly. Malcolm says, “The idea seems to be to make beautiful pictures of ugly bodies.”

Looking at the Dancer nudes, Malcolm says she “has trouble keeping a straight face.” She writes, “As Beller [Alexandra Beller, Penn’s model], with lowered eyes or averted gaze, strikes one absurdly theatrical attitude after another, Penn photographs her with an almost religious solemnity.” Comparing the Dancer nudes with E. J. Bellocq’s nudes, she says, “Penn’s dancer has nothing in common with Bellocq’s larkily relaxed whores.” She refers to the “wonderful warmth and life” of Bellocq’s photographs.

Malcolm makes an exception for the last eight photographs taken at the final Dancer session. She says, “They show the dancer in motion and have a “mysterious blurred painterliness.” “But,” she says, “they cannot change the show’s overall daunting impression.” She concludes “Nudes Without Desire” with the observation that “Not all experimental work works,” and that Penn erred in his decision to show the Earthly Bodies series and Dancer’s first nineteen images.

Janet Malcolm, "Burdock No. 1," 2005-07
But what Malcolm rejects in “Certainties and Possibilities” and “Nudes Without Desire,” she appears to embrace in her own photography and in her essay “Burdock” (The New York Review of Books, August 14, 2008). In “Burdock,” she says, echoing Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room, “Taking a picture is a transformative act.” And the method she uses to photograph her burdock leaves is the same artificial one that Penn used to photograph his butts. She describes it as follows:

What I have done with the burdock leaves is, of course, part of the enterprise of decontextualization that received its awkward name in the late twentieth century and was a fixture of that century’s visual culture. Patchwork quilts hung on the walls of museums, African tribal masks used to decorate orthodontist’s waiting rooms, ship propellers displayed on coffee tables – these are some familiar forms of the practice of taking something from where it belongs and that has a function, and putting it where it doesn’t belong and merely looks beautiful. It looks beautiful in a particular way, to be sure, the way of modernist art and architecture and design. When I remove a burdock leaf from its dusty roadside habitat, I anticipate the stylized aspect it will assume when it is set upright against the clean white walls of my attic studio, its lineaments refined by sunlight coming from above.

Decontextualization is exactly the process Penn used to photograph his cigarette butts, his ugly nudes, and the various “simple people” (Penn’s condescending words) depicted in his Worlds in a Small Room. It’s the very process that Malcolm previously criticized (rightly, in my opinion) as “devitalizing” and “effacing reality.” Now, in an interesting volte-face, she says it’s “beautiful in a particular way … the way of modernist art and architecture and design.” Obviously, Penn has influenced her more than she admits. In “Certainties and Possibilities,” she says, “Penn removes people from their own context and treats them like botanical or zoological specimens.” That’s exactly the treatment she accords her burdock leaves. In “Burdock,” she says,

But I also see images that pre-date modernism: namely, the illustrations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century herbals and works of botanical science, whose subjects have been similarly plucked from nature and rendered in splendid unnatural isolation. Although these decontextualizations are in aid of identification and classification, the old botanical artists were hardly immune to the beauty of the forms they scrutinized with such care. Looking at natural forms close up is an exercise in awe. The botanical illustrators never failed to convey their sense of the mystery that adheres to the gorgeousness of the particulars of the things that are alive in the world. These photographs were made under their inspiration.

Like “the old botanical artists,” and like Irving Penn, whose method, she said, treated people “like botanical specimens,” Malcolm has chosen to render her subjects in “splendid unnatural isolation.” Are her denatured burdock leaves beautiful? No and yes. No, they’re not beautiful; they’re dry, devitalized, lifeless. They lack the “wonderful warmth and life” that Malcolm says she finds in Bellocq’s photographs. They efface burdock reality. But wait a minute. My tactile imagination is now in play. There’s another way of looking at them; my fingers accompany my eyes. Yes, they are beautiful – for their crumbly, wrinkly, time-eaten texture. Texture is, as Bernard Berenson pointed out in Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1952), an important aesthetic element. Malcolm’s burdock leaves have it; so do Penn’s butts. 

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

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