• Farrar Straus and Giroux

Janet Malcolm is probably best known for the opening salvo of her book The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” This has no doubt inspired a great deal of soul-searching in journalism-ethics classes, but it gives an erroneous impression of Malcolm. Janet Malcolm is not (usually) the sort of journalist who poses as the scourge of God. She is a camera.

It’s probably not a coincidence that nearly a third of the essays in her new collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, concern photography and photographers, ranging from the Victorian pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron to Diane Arbus to Thomas Struth, a German who specializes in oversize photos and who two years ago shot an enormous portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

“Photography is a medium of inescapable truthfulness,” Malcolm writes in her profile of Struth. “The camera doesn’t know how to lie. The most mindless snapshot tells the truth of what the camera’s eye saw at the moment the shutter clicked.” But, she adds, one of the roles of the photographer is to provide the setting the way Struth (in his portrait of the Queen) selected the suit she would wear (“many of the dresses she wears are quite unfortunate,” he tells Malcolm) and repositioned a badly placed pillow behind her.