THE 11 ESSAYS in Janet Malcolm's Diana & Nikon are very close to reviews. They were written from 1975 to 1979 for The New Yorker and The New York Times and were transferred intact into book form. Characteristic of reviews for those publications, 10 of the 11 essays are tied to specific events: the publication of new photographic books or the exhibition of works by known photographers at major galleries and museums. The exhibited and published works with which Janet Malcolm deals are, in order, those of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Irving Penn, Garry Winogrand, Richard Avedon, Herta Hilscher-Wittgenstein, Donald McCullin, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Eve Sonneman, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Chauncey Hare. To some -- Stieglitz, Weston, Winogrand, Avedon, Frank -- she returns more than once, as she does to the Museum of Modern Art's curator of photography John Szarkowski.
Malcolm's central thought is this: "Scratch a great photograph and find a painting (or painterly influence)." This idea is elaborated and restated in each essay. "If you scratch a great photograph," she writes, "you find two things: a painting and a photograph. It is the photographic means with which photography imitates painting that produce a photograph's uniqueness and aliveness." Elsewhere she says that "a photograph is most truly photographic when it is openly a parasite of a painting or a drawing -- photography must not imitate art but may legitimately feed on it." What's more, "if a photographer wants to create rather than imitate, he should get himself a brush." She even states that "It may be that the golden age created by [Stieglitz, Weston, Strand, Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz] is a single, aberrant episode in a medium whose truest purposes are fulfilled not by artists stuggling against its mechanical grain but by artisans and amateurs letting it call the shots." "The most advanced photographers," Malcolm concludes, "are painfully unlearning the art lessons of the past and striving to create an aesthetic out of the ineptitudes and inferiorities of amateur snapshooting. As a result, haphazardness, capriciousness, and incoherence are everywhere emerging as photography's most prominent characteristics."
Underlying these statements is an answer to the question, "What is the authentically photographic?" Any photographer can find out, Malcolm seems to be saying, by relaxing his or her grip on painting. And what would happen to the photographic work? It would naturally slip back into the anonymous, incoherent, grainy, capricious Sea of Snapshots. All else is a working against the mechanical grain of photography and is an inauthentic aping of art.
Every medium has its equivalent to the qualities represented in snapshots. Artistic preoccupation with such qualities stems from a 20th-century feeling that life no longer lends itself to comprehension and management. Many artists, seeking to reduce their esthetic distance from life, have rejected artistically controlled and refined appearances as "inauthentic." One of the meanings of the Latin authentes is "self-murder": if the search for photographic authenticity is the goal, what better way to kill one's controlled artistic self than to take as model the self-inexpressive, anonymous, uncoltrolled and often incomprehensible snapshot?
It is however a mistake to equate, as Malcolm does, the photographic work of a Winogrand, for example, with snapshots. That is like saying that the chatter of all cocktail parties sounds alike, and that therefore all individual representations of such gatherings are relatively indistinguishable. But what happens when one of the guests is a Winogrand (or an Ionesco) who supports his individual observations with a body of work revealing a point of view? If we have learned anything from photographs, we know that the appearance of an image is not its self-delineated meaning -- that meaning can only begin to be approached through context. Stieglitz, the photographer whom Malcolm seems to admire most, understood this clearly: He had only eight exhibitions during his lifetime and insisted on having the totality of his work represented on each occasion.
What to me is most interesting about Malcolm is not the critical cargo she carries but her assumptions about navigation. She moves as if there were only surface. I think this is a way of proceeding that she might most seriously question. An example: She cites the surprising "artistic" merit embodied in the wide range of photographs reproduced in John Szarkowski's The Photographer's Eye. She reproduces several examples of paired photographs from that book, such as Weston's portrait of Nahui Olin and an unknown 19th-century photographer's portrait of Chief Medicine Bottle in captivity. Her conclusion: "Perusing The Photographer's Eye is a shattering experience for the advocate of photography's claims as an art form. The accepted notion that in the hands of a great talent, and by dint of long study and extraordinary effort, photography can overcome its mechanical nature and ascend to the level of art is overturned by Szarkowski's anthology, whose every specimen is (or, as the case may be, isn't) a work of art."
I am puzzled as to why this observation should force this conclusion. It is indeed true that photographs from anonymous sources can be paired with prints by acknowledged masters without suffering in their company. This indicates the presence of visual thinking and that photography, like the guitar, is immediately accessible and gratifying to the beginner while being supremely resistant to the master. Both uses can move us while belonging to different contexts. It is the issue of context which is of importance and it has been left unaddressed. Malcolm judges a photograph as if it were an autonomous visual entity: "The picture of the Indian Chief is as beautiful and as moving as the Weston portrait." This judgment on sheer visual appearance is like a navigator proceeding as if there were no difference between an ice floe and an iceberg because both look alike on the surface. It is potentially disastrous to dismiss the question of the body of work which lies unseen but supports and gives meaning to that which appears on the surface.
Malcolm's own image of her critical activity is that of a logger with an axe looking for soft spots as she circles and cuts the photographic tree. A more accurate image is to see critics' thoughts as overlapping petals of concern which protect and are in turn nourished by an art's still living and ultimately uncuttable core.
I would urge those who are interested in the issues of photography and its relation to the world to spend some time with Diana & Nikon. The book represents the thinking of a person whose questions about photography are serious and stimulating and must be reckoned with.