A Genuine Delight

The Ongoing Moment – Geoff Dyer, Vintage Press

I read a lot of books about photography, but there are very few that I would call delightful.

Paul Strand's iconic White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916.

Paul Strand’s iconic White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916. Credit the estate of Paul Strand.

But, that’s a pretty good description of Geoff Dyer’s “The Ongoing Moment.” The book won the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award. I have absolutely no idea what that is, but whatever it is; this book certainly deserved the award.

Dyer is one of those non-photographers who shows us that to understand photography doesn’t require that you actually know how to do it. In fact, in the history of thoughtful explorations of photography, some of the best come from non-photographers – Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes being maybe the two most prominent.

And, while Dyer’s book may not achieve the iconic status of Camera Lucida, it’s a lot more fun to read.

Joel Meyerowitz, Truro, 1976

Joel Meyerowitz, Truro, 1976. Copyright Joel Meyerowitz

But, don’t get me wrong, this is no fluffy, sugary confection. There’s a lot of meat, potatoes and vegetables served up in this book as well. In fact, I think it’s likely to join my short list of essential books on photography.

One of my own fence pictures, New Salem State Historic Area, Petersburg, Illinois.

One of my own fence pictures, New Salem State Historic Area, Petersburg, Illinois.

Dyer’s premise is intriguing. He noticed that certain themes and subjects get repeated throughout the history of photography and that some of the greatest photographers have seemed to feed off the same basic subjects – and off of one another.

Not a picket fence, but a favorite of mine anyway.

Not a picket fence, but a favorite of mine anyway.

In exploring these themes, Dyer also explores the photographers, offering brief but insightful glimpses into their lives and visions. He asks, and often answers, what it is about certain subjects that fascinate photographers across vast expanses of time and place.

Paul Strand made a simple white picket fence an iconic image in 1916. But he was certainly not the last to be drawn to this every day and ordinarily quite mundane subject. Dyer shows us Joel Meyerowitz’s own vision of a picket fence, in color and against a glorious cloud filled sky taken 60 years later.

Robert Frank's New Mexico Highway picture from The Americans.

Robert Frank’s New Mexico Highway picture from The Americans. Copyright Robert Frank.

Then there are the road pictures. Best known may be Robert Frank’s US 285 in New Mexico, from The Americans. But, that picture echoes the lesser known 1938 The Road West taken by Dorothea Lange, also in New Mexico. Or, there is Walker Evans’ 1973 Traffic Markings, Old Saybrook, Connecticut – a color image that I was unfamiliar with, but which reflects Walker’s love of using signage in his photographs.

Dorothea Lange's Road West, also taken in New Mexico. Copyright Dorothea Lange Estate.

Dorothea Lange’s Road West, also taken in New Mexico. Copyright Dorothea Lange Estate.

For a photographer (or at least for this photographer) the book can be a bit autobiographical in the sense that I have certainly found in my own photographs many of these same themes cropping up. Universal themes, or just a lack of creativity? I don’t honestly know.

Nebraska Highway 2

Nebraska Highway Two, on the way to Lincoln. One of many road pictures I have shot over the years.

But, back to the book. It’s relatively short and unlike so many books on photography, entertaining. Still there is much to think about and take from Dyer. In looking back over the book for this review, I noticed that while reading, I had highlighted a single statement.

It’s not the only good thought in the book. In fact, it may not even be the best. But it is one that is worth contemplating: “In photography, there is no meantime. There was just that moment and not there’s this moment and in between there is nothing.”

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