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.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Geoff Dyer's "The Mystery at the Heart of Great Photographs"

Photograph by Eli Weinberg

This, for me, has been a Geoff Dyer summer. First, I read his great new collection, White Sands. Then I went back and reread his wonderful New Yorker piece, “Poles Apart.” A few days ago, I started reading his The Missing of the Somme. Yesterday, perusing the online version of this week’s The New York Times Magazine, I encountered his “The Mystery at the Heart of Great Photographs.” What an extraordinary essay! It’s a consideration of Eli Weinberg’s 1956 photo “Crowd near Drill Hall on the first day of the Treason Trial, Johannesburg, December 19, 1956.” It brims with illuminating perceptions and features at least five bravura analytical moves. First, he views the presence of the solitary white boy in the front row as a “crucial component.” Second, after making inquiries, he concludes with reasonable certainty that the boy is Weinberg’s son, Mark. Third, he compares Weinberg’s photo with one taken less than a year later by Will Counts in Little Rock, Arkansas. Fourth, he looks at another photograph of the scene depicted in Weinberg’s picture, which leads to his realization that Mark is “dressed for completely different weather than almost everyone else.” And lastly, he reveals two facts he’s discovered about Mark:

First, it seems that he died in 1965 at 24, so his dad was the one left to look back with love and pride at the vision of belonging that he had witnessed and created. Second, that as a result of a car accident, Mark had been deaf since he was a young child. So there is isolation in the midst of solidarity. These facts change nothing about the photograph, but they add to its mystery. A picture of history — a moment in history — and of fate, it is documentary evidence of the unknowable.

Dyer’s brilliant piece shows how criticism can enrich and amplify a great photograph.

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