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What Her Camera Caught

March 12, 2009 By:
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There are some books that have a mystery and beauty all their own, works that move from certain specific areas of inquiry, and then attach themselves to any number of related themes and ideas, akin to the repeated ripples in a pond after a stone strikes the surface.

Such is the case with Burdock, which has been published by Yale University Press in its customarily scrupulous fashion. It's the work of Janet Malcolm, one of the most ambitious and accomplished nonfiction writers in the country. Her interests, over the course of the last three or four decades, have been numerous: how biographers and journalists work -- the tools, tricks and compromises of both trades; the legacy of Freudian theory; and some of the more public comic foibles of modern psychiatry.

But her very first book, Diana & Nikon, was about photography, and it became an instant classic; and this is the province to which she's returned in Burdock. But where in Diana & Nikon she grappled with the greats of photography in a series of commanding and insightful essays on the aesthetics of the form, in Burdock, she has taken up the mantle of photographer herself.

The book's premise is simplicity itself. In her brief introductory remarks, Malcolm explains the rationale behind the work: "For three successive summers, on the top-floor landing of a house in the Berkshires, I have been photographing burdock leaves. I prop them in small glass bottles and photograph them head on, as if they were people facing me. No two leaves of any plant or tree are exactly alike, of course, but burdock leaves are of conspicuous and almost infinite variety. They are also outstandingly large -- more than two feet long in some cases -- which makes them extraordinarily good photographic subjects."

It's not surprising to discover that Richard Avedon's unrelenting and often unflattering portraits, whether of famous individuals or friends and relatives, were Malcolm's model for her small-scale project -- her capturing of what she calls "uncelebrated leaves." She notes that Avedon "radically extended photography's capacity for cruelty."

"The ravages of time and circumstances on the faces he photographed were mercilessly, sometimes gruesomely, recorded. As Avedon sought out faces on which life had left its mark, so I prefer older flawed leaves to young, unblemished specimens -- leaves to which something has happened. An insect has made holes in them, a blight has created strange sickly patches on their skins, rainstorms have ground dust into their veins, wind has torn pieces from them."

But though Malcolm has now taken up a camera, she has not left behind her sense of aesthetic exploration; where she has pointed her lens says something about what a camera and an image can capture or create.

"Photography is naively believed to reproduce visual actuality," she writes, "but in fact the images our eyes take in and the images the camera delivers are not the same. Taking a picture is a transformative act. Avedon's high-contrast black-and-white photographs render people as we do not see them in life; our eyes spare us the particulars of decrepitude and sickness that the camera almost gloatingly records. In the case of my aging and diseased leaves, the camera exercises another of its transformative capacities: it confers aesthetic value on the apparently plain and worthless."

It is not surprising to learn that this book is dedicated to the memory of Malcolm's late husband, Gardner Botsford. He was a longtime editor at The New Yorker and had edited Malcolm's pieces even before they were married in 1975 (the marriage was the second for both). Botsford died about four years ago from bone-marrow disease. That loss, with all of its implications, seems to be at the heart of Burdock, even though these two-dozen delicate, subtly hued photos are also no more than head-on shots of odd-looking leaves. 

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