Geoff Dyer has been on the verge of writing about photography for ages. Despite the odd stylistic disagreement (I’ve never felt comfortable with Dyer’s assertion that he is an intellectual, for example. I’m not saying he isn’t, I’m just questioning the merits of declaring his status so publicly), I’m an admirer of his work.
I’ve enjoyed his idiosyncratic voyages towards understanding, whether he was writing about he battle of the Somme, or jazz, or Nietzsche, he usually found something original to say and would say it well. So when news broke that he was to be writing about a subject close to my heart, the portents were good.
Until I started to read it. Dyer spends the first stretch (and I say stretch because there are no chapters, headings or any other signposting device via which us mere mortals could use to navigate such an unwieldy document) explaining his methodology. He is following the advice of Dorothea Lange, who once said that it was fine to work completely without a plan, so as not to limit oneself. As Dyer is aware, Lange was talking about the organising principles of photography, not writing. Lange may have had dozens of negatives from a days work, but she would only publish the good bits.
It’s not as though the book is no good; far from it. Dyer is incapable of writing anything other than a perfectly executed sentence. And he’s passionate about photography. But the dilettante approach that has previously served him so well has hindered him here. His desire to avoid the dry, the fusty, the well-trodden path of a potted history of photography has resulted in the literary equivalent of fusion food – it’s a nice enough idea but ultimately unsatisfying. His vague theming by subject – photographs of hats, of the blind, of people from behind – conjure up the impression of his thoughts rolling into each other like so many bowling balls across a perfectly manicured green, each one graceful and perfectly formed, but never quite hitting its target.
The book deals almost exclusively with American photography, bar the odd Atget reference. His central preoccupation seems to be that photographers sometimes photograph each other and that photographers recreate each other’s pictures until it becomes hard to tell them apart. We also learn, by way of gentle anecdote, quite a bit about the inner lives and loves of the American greats; Lange, Strand, Stieglitz, Evans et al. There is a sense of spending a weekend with an elderly gentleman who had known all the old photo-heroes, and is reminiscing over a bottle of vintage cognac. In the same way, I sensed a sadness emanating from this book, but maybe the photography/death interface is precisely the site of our relentless fascination with the subject.
One final point; the title. The phrase ‘the ongoing moment’ with its obvious allusion to Cartier-Bresson’s famous phrase is embedded in Dyer’s series of thoughts about photographers recognising symbols in each other’s pictures and thus making the same images across the decades. ‘Does a coincidence have to be momentary?’ asks Dyer. ‘How long is the moment, the ongoing moment?’ Puzzlingly for me, he appears to answer this question a little later on: ‘In photography there is no meantime. There was just that moment and now there’s this moment and in between there is nothing.’
In one sweeping statement, Dyer artfully destroys his entire premise for the book.