A Photographic Conversation

THE ONGOING MOMENT, by Geoff Dyer. Pantheon, 285 pp., $28.50.

Newsday, November 6, 2005

Recently, in the Guardian, Geoff Dyer described himself as “a literary and scholarly gatecrasher, turning up uninvited at an area of expertise, making myself at home, having a high old time for a year or two, and then moving on.” In his own way, Dyer is offering a defense of his career – which is to say, he isn’t; pre-empting criticism by admitting his inadequacies, he comes off more as sheepish than defensive, and he rejects the word “career” as too intentional for his restless curiosity. Whatever you call his writer’s life, Dyer makes pithy observations while poking around the history of jazz, World War I or D.H. Lawrence, the subject of his compelling unbiography, “Out of Sheer Rage,” and a model of what Dyer calls “intellectual nomadism.” Dyer has also written three novels, and his own nomadism isn’t limited to the intellectual; “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It” follows him through Libya and Thailand, New Orleans and Detroit.

He has a knack for pronouncing profound human truths that teeter on the edge of banality (and sometimes fall in) and for saying he’s abandoned a project while capturing something deep about its essence, largely by foregrounding himself. “Yoga,” which keeps referring to a never-completed book about the ruins of classical antiquity, is ultimately Dyer’s examination of his crumbling middle-aged self.

Dyer has married since his “Yoga” days. In “The Ongoing Moment,” a ramble through the history of photography, he explains that his wife read the work in progress and “kept saying she wished there was more of me in it. The reader will, I suspect, be glad that for once I didn’t follow her advice.” On the contrary: Dyer’s partial restraint (there are still plenty of sentences in the first person) may also be what’s holding back the unexpected insights of the sort found in “Out of Sheer Rage” and “Yoga,” books that blend the male-confessional mode that has made Nick Hornby and David Sedaris popular with an appreciation of, and aspiration to, high culture.

It is probably unfair to expect Dyer, who has earned the epithet “genre-defying,” to repeat himself. But without a massive infusion of subjectivity, “The Ongoing Moment” does not transform its material. Instead, it’s like the lectures of a companionable art-history professor whose tics grow familiar as the semester wears on. What seems like brilliance is revealed to be mere cleverness, and glimmers of originality are overwhelmed by a sense of playing it safe within existing scholarly bounds.

Dyer approaches photography, which is to say a certain kind of modernist documentary photography, as a conversation across the generations. If you’re not already familiar with the players, “The Ongoing Moment” may not be the easiest way in, but Dyer’s language and method are not obstacles. He’ll riff on an object or setting – barbershops, staircases, benches, the empty highway – and how various canonical figures handled it. The everyman in an overcoat, for example, “first walks into our cultural viewfinder in the early years of the twentieth century. He still crops up fairly frequently after the Second World War. Rudy Burckhardt spots him in the neon dusk of Times Square in 1947; Mark Riboud finds him in England in 1954, scuttling along, looking slightly out of place in vernacular Leeds. Rene Burri sees him crossing a cobbled street in Prague in 1956, immediately after the Hungarian Uprising.”

That quote notwithstanding, mostly Dyer includes photographers interested in America – Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, William Eggleston and through to Michael Ormerod, a British photographer whose posthumous “States of America” is a remix of their visions. Dyer is particularly fascinated by “photographs that look like photographs taken by someone else” – an image of a child’s grave, for example, that looks like a Walker Evans but was actually taken by Edward Weston. These photographs confound assumptions about how content relates to style.

Dyer also tries to dissolve chronology and claims to see premonitions of the suicide of Rebecca Strand in a nude by Alfred Stieglitz, and that of Francesca Woodman, a prodigy who died at 22, in how she photographs doors. His attempt to work against these givens of art history – authorship, date – is an interesting idea but makes for a frustrating read.

It might have been less so if Dyer had more fully articulated what these images mean to him. By the end of “The Ongoing Moment,” though, I suspected that it wasn’t a case of his holding back; maybe he simply wasn’t as invested in these photographs as he thought he might have been when he began. It’s hard to know, but without that personal dimension, the result is a quirky but redundant survey that might as well have been written by an expert.

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