Sarah Malakoff – Personal History

Review by Steve Harp • 

When visiting unfamiliar homes in what now seems a distant age – at a time when bookshelves in homes contained books that were intended to be read, rather than simply to function as design statements showcasing one’s domestic “brand” — I always enjoyed surreptitiously investigating which books people had included in their personal libraries.  I would think about how the interests and tastes reflected there matched (or diverged from) my own and what conclusions (or speculations) I could draw about my hosts from their books in the context of their lived environments of objects and decor.

I felt myself drawn back to this practice while looking through Sarah Malakoff’s monograph, Personal History. Malakoff’s compelling photographs of approximately 40 different living spaces present portraits of their dwellers in absentia, who are not only living in spaces of their own creation but are also, in a very real sense, living in times or histories of their own creation as well.  As a medium, photography purports to re-present a very thin, specific moment or sliver of time, an instantaneousness, but these images eloquently show how we all continually dwell in overlapping complexities of times, as reflected in this compendium of images of historical pastiche.  

From the “rustic cabin” décor featuring a large framed photograph of the “Pyramids of Giza” to the room containing bookcases, fireplace and sculptures recalling “Ancient Egypt” to the room of paneled walls featuring framed illustrations of what seem to be covers of romance novels above a bed on which lies a cushion with Barack Obama’s picture embroidered upon it, each of these spaces presents a time- and history-twisted quirkiness that draws me in and rewards extended viewing and contemplation.

Probably appropriately, as a physical object, Personal History presents as something of a “coffee table” book, if a modest one.  The hardbound imagewrap cover is a dark, rich blue, depicting a bust of “Caesar” perched on a lit pedestal column.  The book measures 9 ½” x 12” but a relatively thin ½” in thickness.  It opens with a Foreword by Lisa Crossman, Curator of American Art and Arts of the Americas at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.  Following the book’s 52 photographs is a short essay by Jessica Roscio (Director and Curator at the Danforth Art Museum at Framingham State University) titled, “Sarah Malakoff’s Personal History.” A plate list and biographies are also included at the end.  The majority of the photographs are vertical, single page images with thin white borders, although about a third are horizontal, printed across the gutter, and six are full page bleeds, referred to as “details” in the plate list. 

Each room, as presented in Malakoff’s thoughtful compositions, is perfectly ordered and precisely framed.  In fact, there is something almost too perfect in these spaces.   (I think of the space around me as a write this: a table covered with papers, unopened mail, financial documents in preparation for tax season, coats hanging from the backs of chairs, pens in a cup, a cat sleeping in front of me.)   Yet each of Malakoff’s spaces is almost entirely devoid of evidence of contemporary human presence.  In certain photographs we see a microwave, a telephone, a toilet and, in what seem most to suggest an immediacy, a fish tank and a table with partially filled wine and water glasses.  I was reminded of the Freud Museum in London, where the spaces are kept as Freud left them when he died, as if the professor had just stepped away for a few moments and was to return shortly…

Where is everybody?  There is something mysterious and haunting in Malakoff’s depictions of space here, something dystopic and not quite real.   I thought of the comment by Walter Benjamin in his essay, “A Small History of Photography,” in which he likens Eugene Atget’s photographs to the scene of a crime, presumably because of their emptiness and stillness.  

This sense of mystery is set up in the book’s first image: What looks like a kitchen counter (with a toaster oven and a bowl of aging bananas), is crowned at the top of the frame by a bust of the “Horse of Selene from the Parthenon” and, incongruously, a flat-screen television displaying a medium close-up of a woman’s face with close caption text reading: “Had you ever seen him there before?”  A detective’s set-up if there ever was one!

Thus, for all their visual precision, these photographs seem rife with unanswered questions.  We are offered evidence and “clues,” but as viewers we remain at a loss, as if stumbling upon a series of stage sets from which we are asked to reconstruct the storylines.  One “evidential” aspect of these photographs I was particularly engaged by were the full page, full bleed “details,” close ups of plates, rugs, upholstery and, most strikingly, wallpapers (depicting cowboys, in “Native American Chief,” and the Antebellum South, in “Southern Plantation”).  

Wallpapers surround one with (and cannot help but reinforce) certain historic narratives – a viewer might wonder whether these narratives constitute projections inward or projections outward.  I am reminded of photographer Henry Bond’s quirky book Lacan At the Scene, in which he reimagines a number of British crime scene photographs as if being examined by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan acting as a forensic detective.  My reference to psychoanalysis is not so far afield as one might think, though, consideration of the mysteries of domestic space lead seamlessly to Freud’s essay, The Uncanny.  In that essay, Freud posits something very simple and yet profound, that home is at the same time both the most familiar and the most unfamiliar of spaces, just as that which we think we know the best is actually the most unknown and most haunting. 

As with space, so too with time.  We can only wonder at the personal histories which have been so carefully constructed in these spaces documented by Malakoff, and what they represent and reveal (and conceal) about those who have constructed them. 


Sarah Malakoff has been featured previously on PhotoBook Journal: Second Nature


Steve Harp is a Contributing Editor and Associate Professor The Art School, DePaul U.


Personal History, Sarah Malakoff

Photographer: Sarah Malakoff, born Newton, MA; resides Boston MA

Publisher: Kehrer Verlag 

Foreword: Lisa Crossman and Essay by Jessica Roscio

Text: English 

Hardcover (imagewrap), case-bound, 52 color illustrations, printed and bound in Germany, ISBN 978-3-96900-089-2

Photobook designer:  Kehrer Design (Lisa Dreschel) 


Articles and photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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