If you’re interested in the history of 20th-century photography, in the
interplay between photography and its cultural context, in the intricacies of
visual art, The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer is an original and eye-opening must-read.
From the beginning, Dyer makes it clear that he’s not
an expert in photography, but it’s also abundantly clear that he’s taken the time to do his research here, to put forth his own discoveries and theories, to make these connections, and to try to explain them to all of us. If his other books (But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It) are as passionately written, then Dyer is definitely an author who’ll make it onto my auto-buy list. I must say, though, that even with his “I’m not an expert” assertions, this book has a bit of an ‘insiders’ vibe to it: I know little about photography as an art form(rather than just ‘what I like’), and there were times I had no idea what the author was talking about. But it was because of this that I also learned a lot and was able to see things from startling
and new perspectives. Going into the book, I knew some basic things about composition and use of light, but I didn’t really understand all that goes into making a picture work. I may have wandered way outside of my field of knowledge, but Dyer certainly made it an enjoyable trip.
This book covers some important topics – like how much a photograph depends not only on its taker, but also on the culture, time and place it was taken; or the idea that in a photograph, what you aren’t seeing is sometimes as (or more) important than what you are.
One particular theme that Dyer discusses that captivated my attention was the contrasts found within photographing those who can’t see – with someone who is blind, does the photographer lack the ‘reciprocity of intention’ inherent in photography? Or are they truly getting their ideal model, because there can be no contrivance of emotion? Are they giving, or taking, power, by capturing those who can’t see that they are there? Are they illuminating the invisibility of those with disabilities, or adding to
it? Is the camera around a photographer’s neck the
antithesis of a blind beggar’s sign, or its equal?
All of these questions, and so many more, were the kind of wonderful and frustrating issues that I discovered while reading this book.
One thing that Dyer excels at is creating a sense of interconnectedness – you may think he’s talking about two very different subjects, but by the time he’s done, he’s somehow made you see just how linked they truly are. Eclectically collected photographs of backs, stairs, hands,
and eyes show up again and again, throughout decades and fads, showing so much more than their ‘simple’ subject matter would at first suggest.
Unique perspectives – following the course of the Great Depression through photographic evidence of men’s hats, for example – are presented.
Dyer’s writing style is somehow both formal and familiar at the same time. He’s a talented storyteller who weaves poetry and anecdotes in and out of the text with ease and approaches everything with a sly and subtle sense of humor. Every page is rich with historical detail – intense mini-biographies of important photographers, telling quotes from the same, footnotes upon footnotes. He also suggests much further reading and helpfully includes areas of study and key places to start those studies.
I would’ve liked more actual photographs, though. He mentions so many pictures and shows comparatively few of them; while his descriptions of the missing photos are vivid and enthralling, they only serve to make the reader miss the visual examples all the more.
Again, the pictures he’s discussing may well be famous in photography circles, but they were new to me, and I found myself searching for them online more than once. It’s a credit to Dyer’s discussions about them, though that I spent so much time away from the book still considering and searching out the topics he
The Ongoing Moment helps you to see photography as much more than just pictures. It gives you a sense of both universality and minutiae - that every photograph is part of a whole, part of everyone and everything, and can therefore never be truly separated, but it’s also something so unique and so specific to its creator, time and place, that it can never be duplicated by anyone, ever. It’s such an intriguing
dichotomy, and it makes for fascinating reading.