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.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Reflections on the "Proust-Atget Moment" in Janet Malcolm's "Depth of Field"

Photo by Thomas Struth

If I had to pick one favorite from the cornucopia of great New Yorker pieces I’ve read since starting this blog in 2010, I might choose Janet Malcolm’s arresting “Depth of Field” (September 26, 2011), a profile of the photographer Thomas Struth. For me, it’s an instance of double bliss – I love Malcolm’s writing style and I relish her photography criticism. But there’s one aspect of “Depth of Field” that’s always bugged me. It arises from the following passage:

I asked Struth about the influence on him of the Bechers’ pedagogy.

“Their big pedagogical influence was that they introduced me and others to the history of photography and to its great figures. They were fantastic teachers, and they were fantastic teachers in the way that they demonstrated the complexity of connections. It was an outstanding thing that when you met with Bernd and Hilla they didn’t talk about photography alone. They talked about movies, journalism, literature—stuff that was very comprehensive and complex. For example, a typical thing Bernd would say was ‘You have to understand the Paris photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust.’ ”

I said, “I don’t get it. What does Atget have to do with Proust?”

“It’s a similar time span. What Bernd meant was that when you read Proust that’s what the backdrop is. That’s the theatre.”

“Did you read Proust while you were studying with the Bechers?”

“No, no. I didn’t.”

“Have you read Proust since?”


“So what was the point for you of connecting Atget with Proust?”

Struth laughed. “Maybe it’s a bad example,” he said.

“It’s a terrible example,” I said. We both laughed.

A few paragraphs later, Malcolm writes,

As we were leaving the café, Struth said, “I feel bad about Proust and Atget.” Struth is a sophisticated and practiced subject of interviews. He had recognized the Proust-Atget moment as the journalistic equivalent of one of the “decisive moments” when what the photographer sees in the viewfinder jumps out and says, “This is going to be a photograph.” I made reassuring noises, but I knew and he knew that my picture was already on the way to the darkroom of journalistic opportunism.

Yes, but perhaps it’s a bit too opportunistic. The connection between Atget and Proust may be questionable, but it isn’t implausible. Anthony Lane, in his review of Atget Paris (“A Balzac of the Camera,” The New Yorker, April 15, 1994), mentions a book titled A Vision of Paris that couples scenes by Atget with extracts by Proust. Lane writes,

It was not the happy marriage you might expect; for one thing, it reminded you just how deeply À la Recherche breathed the air of the beau monde, whereas Atget was a man of the monde, pure and simple. But something else about the book was off key: the attempt to dress Atget up as an expert in nostalgia and, by printing the images in sepia, turn him into a kind of minor-league Proust who longed to clutch at the past. You can see the temptation: no one can look at his shots of the Tuileries, or the Arcadian vistas that he found at Versailles, without a sympathetic pang.

That Malcolm hadn’t read Lane’s New Yorker review and that she didn’t know about the existence of A Vision of Paris is, given her deep interest in the aesthetic of photography, inconceivable. So when she says to Struth, “I don’t get it. What does Atget have to do with Proust?,” what she’s really doing is giving Struth a hard time. She knows about the Atget-Proust connection. She may not agree with it, but she knows about it. At least, I suspect she does. If I’m right, it follows that she knows Struth’s reference to Becher's observation (“You have to understand the Paris photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust”) isn’t as ridiculous as she makes it out to be.

Credit: The above photograph, Thomas Struth’s "String Handling, SolarWorld, Freiberg 2011,” is from Janet Malcolm’s “Depth of Field” (The New Yorker, September 26, 2011)

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