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 Lonidier, The 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.JulieREnszer.com.