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STILL PICTURES by Janet Malcolm


On Photography and Memory

by Janet Malcolm

Pub Date: Jan. 10th, 2023
ISBN: 978-0-374-60513-1
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Snapshots of a life of artistic creation.

Journalist Malcolm (1934-2021), a photographer and collage artist as well as an award-winning writer, uses images of family and friends to create a memoir as elusive as it is revealing. “Autobiography,” she wrote, “is a misnamed genre; memory speaks only some of its lines.” Looking at photographs of herself as a child, of her parents and sister, she often admits to the vagueness of her recollections. “Most of what happens to us goes unremembered,” she observes. “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.” What she does remember coheres as a portrait of the émigré Czech community in New York in the 1940s. She and her family came to the U.S. in 1939 and settled in Yorkville, where her father, a doctor, treated the immigrant community in that upper Manhattan neighborhood. Besides public school—as a teenager, she went to the High School of Music and Art—Malcolm was sent to learn Czech; but though her parents wanted to ensure her connection to her heritage, they only belatedly told her she was Jewish. She and her sister were dismayed: “We had internalized the anti-Semitism in the culture and were shocked and mortified to learn that we were not on the ‘good’ side of the equation.” Malcolm portrays her father as kind and patient, her mother as needy and volatile. Family life was happy, but “all happy families are alike in the pain their members helplessly inflict upon one another, as if under orders from a perverse higher authority.” If some memories are swathed in the innocence of childhood perception, some seem deliberately obscured. “I would rather flunk a writing test,” Malcolm admits, “than expose the pathetic secrets of my heart.” What she does expose are sharp observations rendered in the precise, stylish prose that earned her acclaim.

A graceful meditation on memory.