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.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

On August Sander: Dyer v. Lane

August Sander, Pastry Cook (1928)
I want to compare Geoff Dyer’s recent "Categorical Imperative" (Bookforum, Apr/May 2014) with Anthony Lane’s "Faces in the Crowd" (The New Yorker, February 10, 2003). Both are reviews of August Sander’s photography. But their perspectives differ from each other. Dyer looks at the faces of Sander’s portraits and finds they “look as extinct as mammals.” He says, “People just don’t look like this anymore.” Lane looks at them and says the experience is “like entering into a novel.” Dyer sees the pictures as fossils. He says the faces are “stuck like fossils in the geology of time.” Lane animates the photos. Here, for example, is his vivid description of “Pastry Cook” (1928):

Round as a bun, topped with a head like a shining cherry, the master of his craft stands firm and square on the tiles of his kitchen, one hand clasping the inch-thick handle of a spoon or whisk, the other curled around the handle of a large mixing bowl, whose curves are a perfect match for the swell of his paunch. There is not an ounce of mockery in the mixture, and the pastry-maker himself would consider the portrait fair, perhaps ennobling, yet the picture is lightly, irrefutably spiced with a pinch of the comic. In that balancing of the aesthetic scales, Sander has no equal.

That noticing of the way the mixing bowl’s curves match the swell of the pastry cook’s paunch is brilliant!

Like Lane, Dyer feels “the all-consuming psychological pull” of Sander’s portraits, “their immense and draining gravity.” But unlike him, instead of being drawn into the photos, he “craves escape” from them - “escape from the density of faces and clothes – of people.” 

I admire Dyer for the honesty of his response. But of the two approaches, I prefer Lane’s. Sander’s pictures are dense with details. Lane helps me see them. 

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