Friday, January 18, 2019

Ways of seeing

For specialist authors, generalist Geoff Dyer must be absolutely infuriating. It must seem that all he has to do is to decide to pitch up on your turf, write about it and instantly the resulting book is hailed as one of the best on the subject. But Beautiful has been widely praised for containing some superlative writing about jazz; Out Of Sheer Rage is a wonderfully eccentric take on the genre of literary biography, a study of D H Lawrence that continually digresses away from its subject; and then there's The Ongoing Moment, in which he surveys the rich history of twentieth-century American photography armed with little technical expertise ("I make no claim to being an expert in this or any other field") but a sensitive appreciation of aesthetics, a keen eye for detail and a memorable turn of phrase.

In The Ongoing Moment, Dyer adopts a characteristically idiosyncratic approach to his topic. Rather than considering each of photography's most prominent proponents in turn, or moving chronologically through the century, he instead focuses on the images themselves, grouping them by their subject matter: pictures of benches, pictures of petrol stations, pictures of men wearing hats. As perverse as this may initially seem, it functions to set different images and different photographers in dialogue with each other - for him, "the only way to [discern identifiable styles] was to see how different people photographed the same thing" - and enables him to trace echoes and resonances that reverberate across the years. As he comments, one of his intentions with the book is to "find out what certain things look like when they've been photographed and how having been photographed changes them. Often it turns out that when things have been photographed they look like other photographs, either ones that have already been taken or ones that are waiting to be taken."

Dyer largely avoids discussion of landscape photography and pictures of the natural world because his interest in the art form is primarily rooted in what it can show and tell us about human experience and the ways in which we shape our environment, and because, like Walker Evans, he is fascinated by "the slow manifestation of time, not its absence". However, this doesn't mean that all of the images that he selects depict people; on the contrary, some of the most powerful are "empty" yet nevertheless suggestive of activity. As he argues when discussing Evans' 1936 shot of a barber shop in Atlanta, some rooms "wait for us to keep them company, to bring them back to life".

The looseness of the book's structure and Dyer's tendency to drift casually wherever his thoughts take him is likely to be disorienting and infuriating for some readers. But if you indulge him and allow yourself to be carried along, The Ongoing Moment is quite a ride, packed with astute insights and perceptive readings. Time and again, he displays the unerring knack of being able to spot something in a picture that you'd missed but that suddenly seems essential to understanding it.

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