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.

Friday, December 23, 2016

December 19 & 26, 2016, Issue

Pick of the Issue (the “World Changers” issue) this week is Raffi Khatchadourian’s absorbing “The Long View,” a profile of landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky. The piece’s tagline is “Edward Burtynski’s quest to photograph a changing planet,” but Khatchadourian appears doubtful that that’s what Burtynsky is really up to. He writes, “In fact, throughout his career, Burtynsky has used his camera to create painterly abstractions as often as he has to create sublime imagery.” He says of Burtynsky’s “Nickel Tailings #34” and “Nickel Tailings #35,” “They appeared to be saying something forceful about the modern world, but with enough looking that forcefulness began to dissolve: was this a study in ultra-toxicity, or was it a benign terrain transformed by photographic sorcery?” That, for me, is the piece’s central question. Khatchadourian doesn’t resolve it. Instead, he calls Burtynsky’s photos “visual puzzles.”

“The Long View” follows Burtynsky on a phot0 shoot in Laos, Nigeria. Chaotic, complex Laos, home to twenty-one million people, is a great documentary subject. But, except for aerial shots, Burtynsky doesn’t capture it. Neither does Katchadourian. There are no inspired descriptions of the place that deliver us directly into the rub of things like the ones he wrote in his superb “A Century of Silence,” an account of his trip to Diyarbakir, in southwestern Turkey. “The Long View” reflects its subject, an abstractionist photographer who transforms industrial terrains into beautiful images drained of reality. Some of those images are undeniably ravishing: see, for example, "Saw Mills #1, Lagos, Nigeria 2016,” one of the illustrations accompanying Khatchadourian’s piece. But they don’t engage me. I don’t think they engage Khatchadourian, either. They’re missing a crucial element – human actuality.

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