I don’t believe in the metaphysical world. That doesn’t mean, however, that really weird things don’t occur quite regularly in my life just to mock my foolish lack of faith. This book, that I’d read a number of years ago and which had greatly influenced my thinking about photography, was placed on my nightstand by me not long after the pandemic had given rise to the unprecedented isolation that characterized most of 2020.
I was, as maybe many of us were, wanting to revisit some of the things that had once mattered in shaping my world view, but that I’d moved past over time and maybe even forgotten. We had a lot of time to fill and I’m sure we each were reaching for anything that might help us get through a very tough moment in all of our lives.
But the book just sat there for well over a year. It didn’t reach for me and I likewise returned no favors.
Photographers have been known to greatly dislike books like this. Art critics, intellectuals, great writers, almost as a rule, not photographers themselves, weighing in on someone else’s craft is rarely taken well. But, for the most part, people like Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, John Szarkowski, and Janet Malcolm have been well represented among the many north stars in my own photographic journey.
The first I ever heard of Ms. Malcolm was one summer day when I opened my mailbox in the early 1990s to find a double issue of The New Yorker magazine. The cover art work stopped me cold. A baroque color illustration of a deceased woman readied for burial with a frame bearing some words that I soon realized was poetry so powerful it would change forever my perspective on poetry itself.
Inside the magazine was the reason for the double sized issue. An article, hands down the greatest magazine piece I’ve ever read, entitled The Silent Woman, written by Janet Malcolm, about the the tragic and painful life of the great 20th century American poet Sylvia Plath. As with the subject of so many New Yorker pieces that I loved back in those days when I kept up a subscription, I had absolutely no knowledge or interest in the topic of either poetry or Sylvia Plath prior to opening my mailbox that day.
This piece, which was in two parts, was actually Ms. Malcolm’s entire forthcoming book, printed exclusively for New Yorker readers in its entirety prior to publication. If I can write my way out of a paper bag today, I would argue it is because of my exposure to and complete absorption of this one Janet Malcolm article on the poet Sylvia Plath that summer.
So when, much later, I learned that Ms. Malcolm had written extensively on the subject of photography, I sought out whatever I could find. Unfortunately, I could only find the intriguing title of this book that still sits on my night stand, Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography.
It seemed like years before I could actually get my hands on a copy of the book. But when I did, I was immediately struck by how much this writer, who I’d connected with so profoundly on subjects that held no prior interest for me: poetry, someone else’s marriage troubles, the pitfalls of biography, etc. was now able to articulate my own inarticulate viewpoints on photography as if she were reading some part of my subconscious mind.
The Diana in the title did not refer to Princess Diana, I quickly ascertained. And that was just the beginning of my enlightenment and the enrichment of my perspectives on what had become an absolute obsession for me, the making and taking of photographic images.
We have a balcony now. And at some point in the middle of June it became absolutely perfect for sitting out on our balcony in the mid-afternoon when there is no direct sun bearing down on us. But it was also excellent for catching up on some long overdue reading there in the still quite bright California daylight. So, after over a year of looking down at this book on my nightstand, haunted with guilt every morning and night, I grabbed Janet Malcolm’s collected New Yorker pieces on the subject of photography pictured above and started to once again read through her great work.
Of course the writing and insights and opinions throughout Diana & Nikon had lost none of their relevance or impact or their lasting influence or ability to inspire me.
It took a couple of weeks of leisurely working through the writing to finish the book. I took my time and that was a great part of the pleasure. As I said, this would have been beginning in the middle of June. This year, 2021.
Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography is a first edition hardcover book that has been in my possession for a better part of two decades. I read it when I first got it, referred to it maybe once or twice over the years, and other than that didn’t touch it again until early last year when I placed it on my nightstand with the intention of reading it during the pandemic lockdown, something I failed to do at that time.
But I finally read through the book beginning in mid-June and finishing it before the end of the month.
I learned only a few weeks later that Janet Malcolm had died on June 16th 2021.
Okay, I still don’t believe in the metaphysical world. That doesn’t mean, however, that really weird things won’t continue to occur quite regularly in my life just to mock my foolish lack of faith.