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.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Gideon Lewis-Krauss's "What We See When We Look at Travel Photography"


Robert Frank, "Santa Fe" (1955)













A special shout-out to Gideon Lewis-Krauss for his terrific “What We See When We Look at Travel Photography,” in this week’s New York Times Magazine, a delicious essay connecting Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature,” Paul Fussell’s Abroad, Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, Edward Hopper’s Gas, Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, Janet Malcolm’s Diana and Nikon (a collection of her New Yorker photography pieces), Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station” (The New Yorker, December 3, 1955) with transfixing “road” photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, and Gary Winogrand. The core of the piece’s combinational delight is Lewis-Krauss’s multilayered interpretation of his friend David’s Instagram image of a nighttime gas station. “ ‘What is it,’ his caption asked, ‘about #gasstationsatdusk?’ ” Lewis-Krauss’s answer is brilliant:

It wasn’t an act of representation at all, and it certainly wasn’t private. It was the expression of affect he wanted to communicate in that moment — something a little smart, and a little sad, and a little funny, and all in all very David. The image, an internet square of labyrinthine self-referentiality — a photograph that recalled a painting that was at home in a poem — recalled for me a different line of Geoff Dyer’s, where he quotes John Berger on Paul Strand’s portraits: They arrested a moment “whose duration is measured not by seconds, but by its relation to a lifetime.”

The “lifetime” Berger is referring to is, I think, the lifetime of Strand's subjects. Berger, in his superb essay, writes, “Strand’s photographs suggest his sitters trust him to see their life story.” Lewis-Krauss, in his piece, seems to be saying that David’s gas station photo is self-referential - “the expression of affect he wanted to communicate in that moment.” I agree with both writers. Photographs have a double aspect, as much that of a mirror as of a lens.

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