Still Pic­tures: On Pho­tog­ra­phy and Memory

  • Review
By – April 4, 2023

In her posthu­mous book, Still Pic­tures, Janet Mal­colm mines her per­son­al archive for pho­tographs of her par­ents, aunts, fam­i­ly friends, and of course her­self — and she begins near­ly every chap­ter with a black-and-white snap­shot. Read­ing this short book is a bit like pag­ing through a pho­to album of some­one you do not know: at first the images seem vague­ly famil­iar, even though you rec­og­nize that you don’t know these peo­ple. And then Malcolm’s sto­ry­telling makes the pho­tos feel all the more famil­iar and enticing.

Nei­ther exclu­sive­ly mem­oir nor med­i­ta­tion on pho­tog­ra­phy, Still Pic­tures offers a mon­tage of one writer’s life. Mal­colm pro­vides intrigu­ing glimpses into a New York Jew­ish Czech com­mu­ni­ty, the lives of her par­ents, her own teenage years, and a cir­cle of Czech fam­i­ly friends who escaped the Holo­caust. Mal­colm goes on to explore sto­ries from her par­ents’ Euro­pean life, her late hus­band, and the famous first amend­ment law­suit that ensnared her. At its most pow­er­ful, Still Pic­tures com­bines Malcolm’s bril­liant obser­va­tions and wit, deliv­er­ing insights about mem­o­ry and fam­i­ly that tran­scend the per­son­al and con­vey more uni­ver­sal truths. For exam­ple, in reflect­ing on her dis­placed moth­er and aunt in the chap­ter Jiři­na and Han­ka,” Mal­colm con­cludes with a strik­ing metaphor: The past is a coun­try that issues no visas. We can only enter it illegally.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, in a lat­er anec­dote, Mal­colm recounts her time at a con­gre­ga­tion­al­ist sum­mer camp and observes, Most of what hap­pens to us goes unre­mem­bered. The events of our lives are like pho­to­graph­ic neg­a­tives. The few that make it into the devel­op­ing solu­tion and become pho­tographs are what we call our mem­o­ries.” The sim­i­le sug­gests how life is vast, while our mem­o­ries of it are slim. 

With­in these beau­ti­ful metaphors is a larg­er truth about time. In the after­word, Malcolm’s daugh­ter Anne explains the many ways pho­tog­ra­phy shaped her mother’s life. Anne’s account, though nar­ra­tive in shape, reads as his­tor­i­cal, almost anthro­po­log­i­cal, describ­ing a near­ly lost world. Still Pic­tures offer a glimpse of that world, by way of a writer now lost to life.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

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