I’ve been in the wrong place But it must have been the right time I been in the right place But it must have been the wrong song I been in the right vein But it seems like a wrong arm I been in the right world But it seems like wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong
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 NewYorker 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.
“Tara Pixley often felt isolated in the newsrooms where she worked as a photographer or photo editor. As a “black woman who was the child of immigrants, raised by a single mom, and also a first-generation college student,” she struggled for a decade to fit in. She was the only woman of color in the photo departments where she worked and was ignored or treated dismissively.”
“Eggleston was in New York during the last week in October for the opening of a new exhibition of his work at the Zwirner gallery that runs through December 17. All of the nearly 50 images in the show were taken in the ’80s as part of a mammoth series called The Democratic Forest, which in its entirety includes some 12,000 images. But in the Zwirner show, for the first time, many of the images have been reproduced on a giant scale, some of them five feet across. Staring at them on opening night (and it is a measure of how Eggleston is idolized, particularly by the young, that hundreds of people braved a truly filthy rain to attend the opening), I thought, when you make a picture that big, there is no room for error, no place for a photographer to hide. And in this case, no need. You could put these pictures on a billboard, and they would lose none of their integrity.”
I once owned the much anticipated and very expensive Leica Summilux 35mm f1.4 ASPH FLE. That lens drove me crazy. I can’t imagine the genius and time and planning and expense that goes into making such a complicated and high-end piece of kit as that, or any Leica lens, so I don’t really like to bash things simply because they just didn’t work for me. But that lens didn’t work for me and I’ll leave it at that. I loved the 35mm 2.5 Summarit. Nice lens that made really classic looking images. I loved the 35 ‘Cron. I don’t think that things can get much better than any Leica Summicron lens. Period.
But like so many others, I covet fast lenses. So back a few years ago when I had the money to experiment I bought a Voigtlander 35 1.2 ASPH Nokton. I have to say, if that lens had been dressed up in a Leica barrel and had a red dot on it and I’d paid what I paid for the 35 ‘Lux FLE… I would have been happy with that purchase. To me, this is the 35 ‘Lux style lens I was after from the start. But unlike the Leica, I can handle it. It never fails me. It has some distortion and I’m working with a profile in Lightroom now to try to address that issue but… it’s okay. I’m okay with this lens. I’m okay with the color, the contrast, the sharpness, the wonderful 50 ‘Lux-like bokeh. Everything.
Anyway. Here’s a quick shot I grabbed the other day and below please find a detail from it to show a little of why I like this lens so much.
“Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” shows, among other things, that Arbus settled early on many of her major themes.
“Street photography was the advanced mode of the day, and practitioners like Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand all claimed New York City as their turf. So did Lisette Model, a Viennese émigré with whom Arbus studied briefly. Ms. Model didn’t give her student much formal advice. Instead, she urged her to ease away from the stance of objectivity then considered requisite for serious photography and instead establish emotional relationships with her subjects, and see where that would take her. For Arbus, the advice was heaven-sent. It gave her permission to be the artist she was ready to be.”
“Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” runs through Nov. 27 at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street; 212-731-1675; metmuseum.org.