Dwight Macdonald, the Man

Occidental, Calif.

Jennifer Szalai’s “Mac the Knife” [Dec. 12], on Dwight Macdonald, perpetuates the intellectual’s self-righteous concern about Macdonald’s acerbic and near academic theories about movies in particular and life in general. I knew a quite different Dwight Macdonald.

I met Dwight when he was admitted to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, where I was chief X-ray technician. Like all kidney stone patients, he was in agony. When I saw his name on the requisition slip I went to his cot and said, “The famous Dwight Macdonald. Now I get back at you for all those nasty comments in The New Yorker.” Dwight’s response, through screams: “Oh God! A literate X-ray technician!”

His inscription in the copy of Parodies he gave me: “For Chet Aaron—in alphabetic altabatic friendship—from Dwight—June, 1964.” We became friends. During recovery, Dwight and his wife, Gloria, stayed at our (my wife’s and my) home. We shared meals and stories about past and current experiences. Dwight was funny, indulgent, loving and attentive to Gloria at all times.

I had worked in Hollywood in the ’50s and had spent much time with several émigré film people, including Bertolt Brecht, Salka Viertel and Christopher Isherwood. My stories—especially about Brecht—often reduced Dwight to shouts of laughter. He made pages of notes and pleaded for my permission to relay the stories. I told him about meeting Garbo (thanks to Salka), and he memorized and repeated the story word for word. I do not think he ever wrote those stories.

For years after his and Gloria’s return to New York we remained connected via mail and phone. He sent me letters—witty and insightful and unpretentious. Mary McCarthy, in Berkeley for a lecture, called me to inform me that Dwight had insisted she meet us. She accepted our invitation to dinner. She raved about Dwight’s wit and warmth even more than we did. Her concern: his critics ignored these qualities because having no experience with such qualities in themselves, they could not recognize them in others.

I have the galleys of Dwight’s manuscript of his movie book, and I have somehow preserved (and recently found) a letter from Dwight during his last year at The New Yorker. I wrote to inform the editors of the letter and asked if they wanted it for their files. Never heard from them.

That letter (on New Yorker stationery, dated June 8, 1964): “…tomorrow we are going to Middletown, Conn. Where Wesleyan University is presenting me with an honorary degree. I’m going to sign my movie column from now on ‘Dwight Macdonald, B.A., Litt. D. (Hon.).’ Let Sarris match that!… What is your position on The New Yorker? If you’re foolish enough to want to read it regularly (despite complete absence of DM for last year and a half and probably for next ditto) I can get you a sub at half price. Let me know. How did you like Mary McCarthy? She liked you. Aff’ly. Dwight.”




Photos in Dumbo

Ocala, Fla.

Jana Prikryl’s “Erosion” [Dec. 12], on documentary photography, raises some interesting questions about the genre. But she tries to sum up what she sees as an overarching trend away from the decisive moment and toward an impersonal omniscience, a kind of giant all-seeing eye in the sky (rather than the “unique perspective” of a witness who seeks telling moments), which has a corollary in the swallowing up of personal “Kodak moments” by the great maw of Facebook.

She bashes the photographers who exhibited last summer at St. Ann’s Warehouse during the NY Photo Festival, curtly dismissing their works and their ideas about photography, before trying to shoehorn them all into her thesis, basically because some of them chose to make large prints. You can tell that Prikryl is aiming for the kind of revelatory criticism of Walter Benjamin or Susan Sontag, but her ideas never take flight. Moreover, the separate elements of the essay—the group examined at the beginning, then Errol Morris, and finally Luc Delahaye and others who owe their perspective to the work of Gursky et al.—are not unified very well.

I wasn’t at the exhibition, but I am familiar with the work of the people mentioned, and I felt that the nuances of their various approaches were overlooked. Ever since Joel Meyerowitz started photographing city streets while assiduously avoiding the “decisive moment,” photographers—artists or realists (a distinction that has caused far more trouble than it ought to have)—have been exploring ways of capturing reality without ceding to the human subject more than its due. This is not news, though Prikryl seems to think it is. And while this newly arisen “giantism” is perhaps indicative of an erasure of the privileged witness, there are also people working in veins that suggest a heightened sense of the subjectivity of the viewer, such as Christopher Anderson, to name just one. The work of contemporary documentary photographers is highly varied and bears closer examination. I doubt that Prikryl is aware of their existence, which is typical of most academically trained culture critics.




Prikryl Replies

Brooklyn, N.Y.

While it’s peculiar that Jon Anderson opines on the “aims” of my essay without saying anything about its main subject, Errol Morris’s book, this should probably be put down to his criticizing a very different piece from the one I wrote. Rather than “bashing” and “curtly dismissing” certain photographers exhibited in Dumbo, I devoted four detailed paragraphs to their work, pointing out the contradictions in a negative New York Times review of it and describing the images I thought less than successful. I found they wore their art-photography influences awkwardly for a few reasons—mainly the “painterly, confected” gloss of their prints combined with a tired approach to composition—not just size. But my point was to offer a recent instance of the borrowings and mutations of genre that have made up photography’s evolution since the 1800s. To toss aside the distinction between “artists or realists,” as Anderson styles them, is to betray an indifference to photography’s history and ethics at a time when digitization invites many documentarians, for better and worse, to get artful with reality.

I never suggested that the objective, large-format style is “news”—though since Anderson accuses me of that and then calls it “newly arisen” himself, perhaps we can agree that novelty in art-historical terms is an elastic concept—that’s why I traced the style back more than thirty years; though I did hope to show how the art-photography look has become a lingua franca among mainstream photojournalists. That certain contemporary photographers are going in the opposite direction is hardly news either, but alleging that I don’t know about photographers who didn’t contribute to my argument in an essay that was ultimately about something else is a curious way to read a magazine. I certainly agree that their work is “varied and bears closer examination”; that’s why I acknowledged “the sprouting variety of documentary photographs being taken today” before moving on to my consideration of Errol Morris’s book.