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The ongoing moment (2005)

by Geoff Dyer

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435544,451 (3.94)16
In his last book, YOGA FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN'T BE BOTHERED TO DO IT, Geoff Dyer confessed that not only did he not take pictures in the course of his travels but that he did not own a camera. With characteristic perversity - and trademark originality - THE ONGOING MOMENT is an idiosyncratic history of photography. Seeking to identify their signature styles Dyer looks at the ways that canonical figures such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Kertesz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston have photographed the SAME things (benches, hats, hands, roads). In doing so he constructs a narrative in which the same photographers - many of whom never met in their lives - constantly come into contact with each other. Great photographs change the way we see the world; THE ONGOING MOMENT changes the way we look at both. It is the most ambitious example to date of a form of writing that Dyer has made his own; The non-fiction work of art.… (more)
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Showing 5 of 5
A Christmas present that I began to read on the day. No higher praise. Finished after reading it in fits and starts. The first book that has made me rethink what I thought if I even thought about photography. Not sure about the finish but the way his mind plays over photos has been great to read. ( )
  adrianburke | Dec 26, 2015 |
Dyer’s is both a fascinating and a frustrating study of (essay on) photography. The frustration comes largely from the presentation (or lack of) the photos themselves. Many of the photos that Dyer talks about extensively are not included at all (for example, those of Roy DeCarava) while the reproductions that have been included are so small and of such poor quality that they might as well not have been. Many of the most interesting observations in the book are actually quotes, observations made not by Dyer but by photographers themselves (for example, one that occasioned an “Aha” moment for me as a photographer: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,” by Gary Winogrand). So, in a sense, Dyer is reflecting, as he reflects upon, the mirror that is photography. He demonstrates his thesis that any photograph is a version of another photograph by making observations of other observations. Dyer focuses on a discrete number of photographers; he doesn’t try to encompass the width and breadth of the medium so much as to make a few points about what interests him most. He returns repeatedly to an elite group, making connections among them and among their photographs: Eugène Atget, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Paul Strand, André Kertész, Roy DeCarava, Gary Winogrand, Brassaï, William Eggleston, Michael Ormerod, and above all, Walker Evans. Dyer writes of photography as an art primarily about subjects and about time (“In photography there is no meantime. There was just that moment and now there’s this moment and in between there is nothing.”) Although he mentions light technically in a few regards, he doesn’t really talk about it. Whereas, for me, and I imagine for many photographers, light is what photography is about in the same way that for musicians music is all about sound. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
What an engaging and scintillating read! Though I disagreed with many of Dyer's examples of common threads in the photographic tradition, I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of this book. Complaints by other reviewers about Dyer's photo examples as being too small were not issues for me in my study. I have written the longest and most personal critical review of my career regarding this book. For those interested it can be found here:

http://mewlhouse.hubpages.com/hub/Sullen-Lust ( )
  MSarki | Mar 31, 2013 |
A poetic meditation on photography that serves also as a history of photographic themes and concerns as well as of America itself (the depression, modernization, transportation etc). My feeling is that if you are a really serious photographer, with your mind already made up about the medium, then you will not like this book, as it doesn't approach photography from either the viewpoint of the academic nor of the practitioner (Dyer doesn't even own a camera). He approaches it as a writer, pure and simple, and what he writes about is as much about himself as it is about photography. Which is exactly his point about photographers: they often approach the same subject (hats, barber shops, backs, benches) but the photos are often more about the photographer who took them than the actual subject matter at hand.

In this way, Geoff Dyer's meditation is personal, quirky; he is attracted to those things that catches his eye on a whim, makes him want to write more about. One of the things that catches his eye are photos taken by one photographer that resemble the work of another. This gets at the heart of the identity of the artist versus his subject matter as well as the ongoing tradition that is built up between generations. Much like in writing, in photography there are also allusions, references, what-have-you, so that a photo can transcend its immediate subject by embracing, commenting on, or rejecting previous photographs on the subject, establishing a conversation across time/moments.

Surely Dyer is aware of these same concerns in his own medium (writing); the book is peppered with quotes and references to writers before him, be they directly related to the subject of photography (Sontag, Barthes, Berger, Benjamin) or not: people he cannot not allude to because they are in the very DNA of his writing (DH Lawrence, Rilke, Whitman, Didion, Borges). This melding of influences creates a very personal style that is the antithesis of academic writing. Oddly enough it reminds me not of a specific writer-ly tradition (though a case can be made) but more of a direct lineage of those great personal documentary films by Agnes Vardas, or of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, with a dash of Herzog thrown in as well. Perhaps this feeling is only enhanced by the fact that this is such a visual book, you must follow his arguments by examining the photos as well as the words.

As a non-photographer... and even as someone who wasn't that interested in photography, this book really drew me in. I delighted to see them through Dyer's eyes. The background information about each photographer, the drama too, and the fact that we get to follow them through different thematic threads, deepens the appreciation of any one photo beyond its frame, so that I began to see each one as a piece of a continuous web, a meeting place between disparate views.

But I didn't always see eye to eye with him; there were some points he made that I didn't see at all, though we were looking at the same thing. His argument (and Winogrand's argument) that Robert Frank's photo of the SAVE GAS photo was one that baffled me:

Looming over the pumps is a sign with the letters S A V E illuminated and the intervening ones--G A S--barely visible. That's all there is, but, for Winogrand, the fact that it's 'a photograph of nothing', that 'the subject has no dramatic ability of its own whatsoever', makes it 'one of the most important pictures in the book'. What amazed Winogrand was that Frank could even conceive of that being a photograph in the first place'. [...] The important thing is "the photographer's understanding of possibilities ... When he took that photograph, he couldn't possibly know -- he just could not know that it would work, that it would be a photograph. He knew he probably had a chance. In other words, he cannot know what that's going to look like as a photograph. I mean, understanding fully that he's going to render what he sees, he still does not know what it's going to look like as a photograph. Something, the fact of photographing something changes..." Winogrand lost his way again but then came back with an irrefutable declaration of intent: "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed."

The conclusion he arrived at was very poetic, I'll admit. But looking at the actual Robert Frank photo (which wasn't included by the way), I just couldn't see the "nothing" that he was talking about:

click here for photo

Here I see so much going on. The gas pumps look otherworldly, like aliens that have landed on a barren landscape, looking for earth's leader. It's fascinating. What's more, the SAVE GAS sign looks like the ribbon stretched across the finish line in a race, as if these pumps were jockeying for position to cross the line. What's not fascinating about it? What I wanted was an explanation for why Winogrand didn't see the potential in this as a photograph.

Oddly enough, I thought some of the other photos discussed to have much less potential, photos of the open road, for example, stretching into the distance.

In other places, Dyer tries to make so many connections, tries to draw everything together into one interconnected photograph that I felt like he was stretching it a bit. He takes too big of leaps in some ways, but in other ways he succeeds. And always he writes beautifully, alternating between fact driven biography, poetic prose, down and dirty analysis, and playful turn-of-phrase humor.

One complaint: many of the photos discussed were not included (like the Frank photo above) or were reproduced so tiny that I could barely make out the details. Needless to say, the internet was an important resource ( )
2 vote JimmyChanga | Jun 10, 2011 |
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the only thing in which I have been actually thorough has been in being thoroughly unprepared.

Alfred Stieglitz
The capacity of photographs to evoke rather than tell, to suggest rather than explain, makes them alluring material for the historian or anthropologist or art historian who would pluck a single picture from a large collection and use it to narrate his or her own stories. But such stories may or may not have anything to do with the original narrative context of the photograph, the intent of its creator, or the ways in which it was used by its original audience.

Martha Sandweiss
My chief problem in writing 'The Aleph' lay in what Walt Whitman had very successfully achieved - the setting down of a limited catalogue of endless things.

Jorge Luis Borges
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For Rebecca
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In his last book, YOGA FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN'T BE BOTHERED TO DO IT, Geoff Dyer confessed that not only did he not take pictures in the course of his travels but that he did not own a camera. With characteristic perversity - and trademark originality - THE ONGOING MOMENT is an idiosyncratic history of photography. Seeking to identify their signature styles Dyer looks at the ways that canonical figures such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Kertesz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston have photographed the SAME things (benches, hats, hands, roads). In doing so he constructs a narrative in which the same photographers - many of whom never met in their lives - constantly come into contact with each other. Great photographs change the way we see the world; THE ONGOING MOMENT changes the way we look at both. It is the most ambitious example to date of a form of writing that Dyer has made his own; The non-fiction work of art.

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