Reading Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment feels a bit like having a conversation about classical American photography with a very articulate, intelligent and funny friend. It’s impossible to get a word in sideways, but why even try, for Dyer is well worth listening to.
Structured as a set of essays, the book doesn’t necessarily have a beginning or an end. Dyer suggests in the introduction that it is treated like a box of old photographs: While it’s entirely feasible to browse them in the (somewhat chronological) sequence they were put into the box, it might make just as much sense to make your way through the essays based on theme, genre, subject, photographer, or any other common denominator for a group of essays. That said, it’s a 250 page book without easy-to-click hyperlinks or even a table of contents, and it’s not always easy to identify where one essay stops and another begins. So one might as well follow the sequence Dyer has chosen.
In the essays, Dyer identifies a set of leitmotifs that appear repeatedly in photographs by famous, mostly American, photographers. Photos of blind people, photos featuring hands, hats or people wearing hats, people’s backs, fences, petrol stations, clouds, drive-in cinemas, roads, and so on and so forth. Each theme or leitmotif is illustrated by a number of pictures by (or “of” or “about”) different photographers. Dyer explains a bit (or, sometimes, quite a lot) about the photographer, his or her background, and why he (Dyer) believe that the recurring theme is worthy of particular attention.
Reading the book, I recognised many of the names, even if I don’t know a great deal about them. Stieglitz, Lewis Hine, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith, Garry Vinogrand, William Eggleston, Robert Capa, Michael Ormerod and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, but there was an even larger number of names I had never even heard about. And even if nobody can expect 250 pages to cover every famous American photographer, it was notable that for instance Ansel Adams or Man Ray were absent.
The paperback book is illustrated with just about okay-ish printed but small reproductions of black-and-white photographs on inexpensive paper. While the photos may be perfectly fine as reminders to an audience that know them and just need a reminder, the quality made it hard for me (as someone who has never seen most of them) to “read” the photographs. There is now a Kindle version of the book available, and the ability to zoom in on individual pictures might make that a better purchase.
As an introductory text, The Ongoing Moment taught me more about the few photographers I knew, introduced me to many interesting new ones, and made me hungry for more knowledge and a better understanding. However, I think it would have worked even better if I had been more familiar with many of the pictures described and compared. Then I could have better followed the analysis and enjoyed the “a-ha” moments when Dyer explained how a photo taken during the Depression was a clear inspiration to a different photographer 50 years later. Or when he enjoyed pointing out that a classical Dorothea Lange-esque picture of someone’s back (I didn’t know that was a “thing”) was actually photographed by someone else. Some parts went over my head, and a few of the jokes required more background knowledge than I was able to bring to the table.
The slightly critical views above shouldn’t detract from the fact that Dyer writes engagingly and with a great sense of humour. With my appetite whetted, I will explore some of the titles mentioned in the bibliography and then – maybe in a few years’ time, when I have a broader foundation – I shall look forward to return and enjoy re-reading The Ongoing Moment.