Still Pictures

Still Pictures coverStill Pictures: On Photography and Memory
Janet Malcolm
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (January 10, 2023), 165 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $26.00

As someone who deeply appreciates the art of the essay I would like to say that I have long been a fan of Janet Malcolm. But that’s not true. The first time I really paid attention to her was when her book of essays, Nobody’s Looking at You, came out in 2019. I read the Kindle sample and just wasn’t engaged. However, something or someone brought my attention to her 2013 collection, Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers. I thoroughly enjoyed those essays, so when Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Still Pictures posthumously this month I made a point of buying it.

Malcolm was suspicious of the art of memoir and autobiography, but late in her life she apparently decided it was better for her to tell her own story the way she wanted it told rather than leaving the task to someone else. Most of the essays are based on a photograph in her possession: either of herself, her family, or people with whom she dealt.

I was not aware that Malcolm was an immigrant, but the second essay describes her departure by train from Prague with her parents in 1939. Their escape was fortunate, as the Malcolm family was Jewish. Malcolm’s father was a doctor, and he was able to obtain his license to practice in the United States, so the family, though not wealthy, lived comfortably.

Malcolm writes a lot about her Czech family and fellow émigrés. She writes about an “after-school Czech school” that her parents sent her to so she could keep in touch with her heritage and language. In a somewhat contrasting move, her parents sent her to a summer camp run by a Congregational minister and his wife, apparently to help the Czech Jewish girl better integrate into Christian American society. In a similar manner the family celebrated Easter not by attending church but by dressing up in new, colorful clothes. Her parents even sent Malcolm to a Lutheran Sunday School.

While most of the book is about her childhood and youth, she also writes about her life as an adult. She admits to having an affair with a man whom she later married. He leased an apartment for their rendezvous, from which the tableware and china that they brought in were stolen. She explains how she went to a speech coach named Sam Chwat to help her with a libel lawsuit. She writes the jury had convicted her but could not agree on a dollar amount for the award. Chwat coached her to abandon the staid, low key New Yorker style (where she spent so many years as a staff writer), in favor of a more flamboyant approach, both in tone of voice and dress. The jury in the new trial decided the plaintiff deserved no award.

Before she was a writer Malcolm was a photographer. As a writer she often thought like a photographer. In her essay on her summer camp she writes:

quoteMost of what happens to us goes unremembered. The events of our lives are like photographic negatives. The few that make it into the developing solution and become photographs are what we call our memories.

Malcom was unable to complete a planned essay on photography before her death in 2021. Instead, her daughter provides a tribute to her mother as a photographer and reflects on Janet Malcolm’s feelings about autobiography.

You’ll find this book well worth your time if you appreciate the craft of the essay or if you enjoy the art of photography.

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