Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment: A Book about Photographs (©2005, Canongate 2012)
This was a gift from a photographer friend who says she rarely reads a book all the way through. She dips here and there until she has had enough. The Ongoing Moment could have been written with her in mind. When I wrote the top line of this blog post, I first wrote the book’s subtitle as ‘A Book About Photography’. That may not be a completely inaccurate description of the book, but its actual subtitle comes closer to the mark. There are 105 photographs reproduced in its pages, most of them muddy and far too small in the edition I read. Dyer’s discussion of them – and of perhaps as many again – is organised around themes that he says emerged as he immersed himself in what appears to have been a sea of photographs.
He writes about photographs of blind people, of men in overcoats and men in hats, of hands, backs, steps, doors, roads, service stations, barber shops and, perhaps most movingly, park benches. These subjects allow him to explore the distinctive styles of different photographers – and those wonderful moments when a work by one photographer looks exactly like something by another. He finds or invents narratives that link images created decades apart, and at times I don’t think he knows which he’s doing. He has a considerable gift for describing an image in an illuminating way.
He discusses works by more than 40 photographers – most of them of the United States, though he says in his introduction that he didn’t set out with that intention. One of the key questions about a photograph, he says, is whether it is of something or by someone.
There are delightful skerricks of gossip, wonderfully apposite quotation from Whitman, Wordsworth and other poets, a constant, confident play of mind. There’s a moment of snark in the acknowledgements that should win some kind of award.
I’m not well versed in photography. In the first days of my relationship with the Art Student, we bonded over a Diane Arbus exhibition (neither of us had previously heard of her, and we both realised at about the same moment that she wasn’t mocking her subjects). We recently visited a huge Paul Strand exhibition in Los Angeles. I’ve peered over her shoulder as she did assignments on Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. This much knowledge, plus my passing familiarity with some Australian greats (who of course are beyond Dyer’s southern horizon), enriched my experience of reading the book. I expect it could be enjoyed by people who know an awful lot about photography, who would find it an interesting personal take on aspects of this huge field. Equally, for people who know next to nothing, it serves as an unsystematic introduction to 20th century US photography – or not so much un- as eccentrically systematic. It’s like spending a couple of hours with a well informed and witty friend who chats enthusiastically as he shares his shoebox full of photographs.