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.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

July 4, 2016 Issue

This year's harvest of New Yorker photography writings has been particularly rich: “Lev Mendes’s “Philip Larkin’s Life Behind the Camera”; Chris Wiley’s “Joyful Forms: The Little-Known Photography of Ellsworth Kelly”; Anthony Lane’s “In the Picture.” Now, in this week’s issue, comes Hilton Als’s excellent “Dark Rooms,” a consideration of Nan Goldin’s 1986 collection The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Als describes Goldin’s book as “a benchmark for photographers who believe, as she [Goldin] does, in the narrative of the self, the private and public exhibition we call ‘being.’ ” He writes,

In the hundred and twenty-seven images that make up the volume proper, we watch as relationships between men and women, men and men, women and women, and women and themselves play out in bedrooms, bars, pensiones, bordellos, automobiles, and beaches in Provincetown, Boston, New York, Berlin, and Mexico—the places where Goldin, who left home at fourteen, lived as she recorded her life and the lives of her friends. The images are not explorations of the world in black-and-white, like Arbus’s, or artfully composed shots, like Mann’s. What interests Goldin is the random gestures and colors of the universe of sex and dreams, longing and breakups—the electric reds and pinks, deep blacks and blues that are integral to “The Ballad” ’s operatic sweep.

Those “electric reds and pinks, deep blacks and blues” are among the hallmarks of Goldin’s style. How did she achieve them? Als, quoting curator Elisabeth Sussman, offers this insight: “Goldin 'discovered her color in flashes of electricity. Even when photographing in natural light, she often unconsciously replicated the effect of artificial lighting.'"

My favorite passage in “Dark Rooms” is Als’s description of Goldin’s approach to her art:

Goldin didn’t photograph the so-called natural world. She photographed life business as show business, a world in which difference began on the surface. You could be a woman if you dressed like one. Or you could dress like some idea of yourself, a tarted-up badass woman, say, who struggles to break free from social decorum by doing all the things she’s not supposed to do: crying in public, showing her ectopic-pregnancy scars, pissing and maybe missing the toilet, coming apart, and then pasting herself back together again.

Als’s writing enacts the rawness of Goldin’s aesthetic. You can tell he identifies with it. I do, too. “Dark Rooms” is a superb piece of criticism. I enjoyed it immensely.

Postscript: While I’m on the subject of New Yorker photography writing, I want to pay tribute to Vince Aletti, whose illuminating capsule reviews of photography exhibitions are among my favorite “Goings On About Town” features.   

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