Book Review: Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory
'The past is a country that issues no visas. We can only enter illegally.'
Family photographs being unreliable insights into true dynamics isn't a trivial concept. Stereotypical images are locked in feigned conformity even at their most candid. Flipping through photo albums, we become revisionists. Yet each photo harbors shadows from realities existing before and after the captured moment. Assumptions based on false interpretations are made. Wounds appear healed and transgressions seem forgiven — if only for a frozen instant. We ask ourselves, are we ever seeing each other how we truly are?
Janet Malcolm, a writer for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, was suspicious of autobiographies for similar reasons. Her friend and colleague Ian Frazier detailed her feelings of skepticism, emphasizing the obstacles to one's journalistic integrity like a desire to seem interesting.
Malcolm's family were described as witty Americanized Czech Dadaists — the atavism of her sharp, imaginative, and direct mind. Her family, she shared, lacked psychological peace after their escape from the Nazis. However, they obtained wisdom and clarity which was reflected throughout this book.
Within the short chapters, Malcolm casts her glib acuity over photographs from her past with warmth. She dives into strangeness, cruelty, misconceptions, and illusions. At times she reads as detached — even passive. Yet her recall of space and identification of character reveal an intimacy. Each chapter is a meditation in its kindest moments and a deconstruction of myth or simple Freudian analytics at their most stark. She echoes this sentiment as if plucked from a Salinger novel, "interesting things happen to uninteresting people." However, she is betrayed by her own attempt of making each character vivid and unforgettable. As a Jewish Czech immigrant, she never fully emerges from the darkness following her family across the ocean. Even so, there is joy and humor within this book which built a collage of Janet herself.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux // 176 pages // Memoir, Autobiography, Criticism, Art, Essay