Amid a sea of photography books there are few that engage with the medium in an intellectually meaningful way — critical thinkers such as John Berger, Roland Barthes or Susan Sontag with their decades-old contributions to photography are notable exceptions. A more recent addition is Geoff Dyer — a wonderful writer whom I’ve only recently discovered — whose book The Ongoing Moment (2005) is an absorbing and illuminating read.
Dyer’s extended essay is an investigation of sorts that takes the reader, via a series of vignettes and ancedotes, on a meandering tour through the history of photography, bringing to life the obsessions, irritations, grievances, squabbles, affairs and of course the work, especially the work, of many notable European and American photographers.
Dyer’s chosen subjects are introduced and linked through various tropes or motifs. The book opens for instance with thoughts on a 1916 portrait of a blind woman taken in New York by Paul Strand, moving on to explain how strongly Walker Evans was influenced by this photo before drawing in thematically relevant poetry by William Wordsworth. The topic is then expanded to include a 1911 photo of a blind beggar by Lewis Hine — who happened to be an instructor of Strand’s. Next, Dyer skips over to 1968 to look at another image of a blind man in New York, this one taken by Garry Winogrand. A little later he moves on to André Kertész, describing a number of his images, including one of a blind man taken in 1955, before summing up that photographer’s grievances thus: His vision was sharp, melodic, subtle, humane, but he was treated as though he were blind.
And so it goes, this interplay of topic, time and place repeated with such motifs as solitary figures in hats, picket fences, doors, windows, roads and fruit: oranges in particular, which become the catalyst for a trip through the origins of color photography and its practitioners.
The Ongoing Moment is exhaustively researched — a quick look at the extensive end notes and bibliography tell us as much — but this thoroughly enjoyable book is worlds away from any dry academic text.