Photo Books

Personal and Commercial Archives Explored in Two New Photo Books

BY Vince Aletti, March 1, 2023

For anyone as disappointed by Janet Malcolm’s Still Pictures (Farrar Straus and Giroux) as I was, I suggest picking up Robin Coste Lewis’s To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness (Knopf). Both books use family snapshots as prompts for recollections of intimate and communal history. But Malcolm’s memoir, subtitled “On Photography and Memory,” and with a picture of its author sighting through a camera on the cover, promises more than it delivers. Lewis’s book, which reproduces nearly 400 photographs of her extended Black family, found in a suitcase under her grandmother’s bed, just delivers. Malcolm, who spent the early years of her career at the New Yorker writing about photography, avoids it almost entirely in a series of brief essays inspired by grainy, uninteresting, and badly reproduced pictures of relatives, friends, and neighbors, only a few of whom she cares much about. A photograph of five-year-old Malcolm and her parents on the Prague train that delivered them from the Holocaust in 1939 opens a typically meticulous and restrained chapter. Her memories are “vague” and “pathetic,” she writes; her later investigation and summing up are deliberately, painfully unemotional. Portraits of her parents spark the strongest and most conflicted responses, but even these feel evasive. “The past in a country that issues no visas,” she writes. “We can only enter it illegally.” There are plenty of rewards here, but the insights Malcolm draws from the images in Still Pictures don’t involve photography.

From The Realization of Perfect Helplessness (Knopf, 2022), Robin Coste Lewis

     Lewis doesn’t write about photography at all, but then she never claimed to. Instead, she uses a big, Bible-sized album of pictures – one of the best vernacular photo books in some time – as a vehicle for a multi-part poem that trails through its pages from start to finish, with a sequence of 30 brief pieces set at its center. The design doubles the work’s impact, with white type and black-and-white images on solid, flat-black pages. Still, the pleasure of spending time with the book wouldn’t count for much if Lewis’s poetry wasn’t so rich and evocative. “I am trying to make the dead/clap and shout,” she writes, and even if she rarely addresses individual images, she animates them and gives them all a striking presence and a visibility that feels like a triumph. “Pleasure is black,” she announces toward the end, but she’s already made that clear. Next to images of wedding parties, sports teams, a prom queen, a soldier, and children on summer lawns, her text is part dream, part memoir: a fable, a Bible story, a family history. An endless cycle of struggle, survival, loss, migration, metamorphosis, and rebirth. “We had every experience/except Death, ” Lewis writes. “More than once/we looked/Death/squarely in the face.”    

Lusha Nelson, Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis, 1925. Vanity Fair

Helmut Newton, Model Lisa Taylor in Saint-Tropez, 1975. Vogue

     Chronorama (Abrams), a knockout selection of photographs from the vast Condé Nast archives, makes an unfortunate first impression. For a book filled with terrific images, many of them unfamiliar or previously unpublished, why is one of the least interesting (by Helmut Newton) on the cover? Ignore it. A subhead promising “Photographic Treasures From the Twentieth Century” is hyperbolic but not misleading. Condé Nast titles, notably Vogue and Vanity Fair, have mined their archives so relentlessly it’s hard to believe there’s anything important or exciting left to see. On the evidence here, there’s plenty, all now absorbed into the Paris-based Pinault Collection. With more than 400 photographs by 185 photographers organized by decade (1910s to 1970s), the book is neatly structured but still overwhelming. Most previous Condé Nast picture books have reproduced images from the magazines; this one searched the archive itself for work that may never have appeared on a printed page. Greatest hits are avoided in favor of variations, out-takes, and other surprises by Condé Nast’s star performers (Steichen, Beaton, Horst, Hoyningen-Huene, Lee Miller, Penn) and key supporting players (William Klein, Duane Michals, Ugo Mulas, David Bailey, Bert Stern). Notably absent, except in a Penn portrait: Richard Avedon, who took all his Vogue work back to his own archives. Unlike previous anthologies, close attention has been given to images of people of color and to subjects outside of fashion and celebrity. The edit is sensitive and lively, full of witty juxtapositions (Penn’s leaping Willie Mays across from David Attie’s levitating model) and provocative pairings (Herbert Matter’s study of an elongated Modigliani sculpture next to Weegee’s stretched-out caricature of singer Johnnie Ray). The move from artifice to naturalism, from mannerism to modernism, is exemplified by the choice of material, but essays put it all into social and historical context. Penn is quoted calling his camera “part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” Not everyone here is as elegant or incisive, but the bar is set pretty damn high.