Janet Malcolm: Burdock at Lori Bookstein Fine Art
September 9 to October 11, 2008
37 West 57th Street, 3rd floor
New York City, 212 750 0949
Janet Malcolm, who is best known for her sober and incisive writerly persona, and who has had previous exhibitions of collages at Lori Bookstein and elsewhere, is currently showing a suite of photographs there of burdock leaves depicted in early stages of decay and decomposition. A book accompanies the exhibition. It reduces the images by around one half. There are no notations as to size, edition or photographic process and subsequently does not function like a catalogue so much as a picture book. An introductory essay about her work by the author also accompanies it.
Malcolm writes in the introduction that the photographic portraits of Richard Avedon particularly influenced her—which he “radically extended photography’s capacity for cruelty…the faces he photographed were mercilessly, sometimes gruesomely, recorded.” Malcolm chooses to photograph leaves of the burdock plant because of its lowly status in the plant world – as a common weed that grows “along roadsides…and around derelict buildings” – and because of its literary status. She notes that Chekhov and Hawthorne have referenced it in their fiction to denote “ruin and desolation” and explains that she prefers “older, flawed leaves to young, unblemished specimens — leaves to which something has happened.”
The Avedon portraits were largely of famous people, well known in the mass media. Like Malcolm’s statement about what the journalist does, Avedon, in some cases “preyed on their vanity.” The naïvely trusting Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for example, were reduced to pathos under Avedon’s lens, while more sophisticated sitters were willing collaborators in a new kind of celebrity portrait that exposed them in their ravaged glamour.
Avedon’s portrait photographs appeared at the very end of an era that saw photographic material as containing “truth”. Where we now understand that it is a kind of fiction. The photographer, Moyra Davey, in her recent, very exceptional book of writing on photography, “Long Life Cool White,” locates this moment of de-authenticity in 1981 when an essay appeared by Martha Rosler entitled “in, around and afterthoughts”. In the same essay in her book, Davey writes with great admiration for Malcolm, and discusses Malcolm on photography on a par with Sontag, Benjamin and Barthes.
Malcolm: “The camera’s bland inquisitiveness…[its] capacity for aimless vision…it is through photography that we first discover the existence of the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.”
Davey also notes her appreciation for Malcolm’s odd personal revelations that crop up in her writing: “A small aside…will unexpectedly open up a window of emotional life onto what had otherwise been a fairly hermetic discursive field.” Any admiring reader of Malcolm brings a particular sense of expectation to the viewing of her photographs.
In the introductory essay Malcolm acknowledges how her leaf photographs have precedents in eighteenth and nineteenth century botanical illustration. She might also have mentioned leaf exposures performed by the nineteenth-century progenitors of the photographic medium.
All the leaves in the pictures have been popped up against a white wall with stem at bottom in a glass of water. Only one leaf picture in the exhibition, Burdock No. 24 (all 2005-07) exposes the neck of the water bottle, and only No. 12 does not maintain the entire image within its borders.
Most of the images are suspended in a slightly grainy atmosphere that is lost when reproduced in reduction in the book. The low luster of the paper stock in the book also robs the viewer of the Iris print quality which prints the image into the paper rather than suspending it in emulsion on top of it. The documented leaves all have individual personalities: No. 17 is “prim”, No. 21 is “busted”, and No. 18 is “plagued”. No. 4 is “like a tree”. No. 6, my favorite, contradicts the general run and is young, unfurling, like spring and forest blue green. No. 16 is broken in shreds and is a deep dark green. All the photographs have beautiful color and evidence high technical accomplishment.
An added aspect is their ability to trigger memory out of proportion to the apparent subject matter, which brings the viewer to their curious vacancy, that the leaves may be individuals but seem to be stock characters. My suspicion is that the exhibition might be best considered as an extended aria to the camera. Its “bland inquisitiveness” seems to hover in the room, a strange, delightful presence never isolated quite this way before.