THE ONGOING MOMENT
By Geoff Dyer
Pantheon Books. 285 pp. $28.50
"The Ongoing Moment" -- the title is a nod to Cartier-Bresson's terrific volume of photographs, "The Decisive Moment" -- takes as its purpose the examination of photographs by a select group of craftsmen. Unlike Cartier-Bresson, Dyer claims not even to own a camera. He sat in his room for a long time looking at some photographs, and this is what he came up with: his thoughts about photography.
Geoff Dyer is something of an icon for the 20-to-40 male demographic, and a visit to the Internet makes clear one reason for his popularity. Although he must work like a demon -- he's stacked up several novels and travel literature, as well as works on John Berger and D.H. Lawrence -- his persona in interviews is that of the cultivated slacker. His recent "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" says it all. He'd just as soon not work; he scorns such a pastime. Don't we all! But he stays home for us, just as Imelda bought shoes not for herself but for all the Philippines. If he were a saint, he'd be the patron saint of loafing, all the while scurrying, on the sneak, to get whatever-it-is done.
So Dyer, for "The Ongoing Moment," sat in his room with volumes of photographs and thought. And now he passes on his thoughts to the reader. Taking 94 black-and-white and 12 color prints, he gets off to a disheartening start with a clutch of blind beggars taken respectively by Paul Strand, Lewis Hine and Garry Winogrand, then moves right on to a series of blind accordionists immortalized by Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Andre Kertesz and Ed Clark, although some of the accordionists aren't blind. Of one picture, Dyer writes: "The accordion, it seems, is such a potent symbol of sightlessness as to blind us -- I too had assumed he was blind -- to the real condition of the person playing it." That's where he lost me. What about the Central European working class whose emblematic instrument was the accordion? What about that Annie Proulx novel? What about Lawrence Welk, for heaven's sake! Or the wonderful Norteno groups that play on the Tex-Mex border, where the controlling reality and the art that goes along with it is sight, the blazing sight of the desert in every direction?
But Dyer profoundly doesn't care about inconvenient reality. The book is about him and his insights. Lots and lots of human hands and gas stations and Alfred Stieglitz taking a picture of Paul Strand, and Paul Strand taking a picture of Stieglitz, and Weegee taking a picture of Stieglitz and on and on.
And then a fairly harrowing section of Stieglitz taking a picture of Georgia O'Keeffe's torso and genitalia, and Stieglitz taking a picture of Rebecca Strand's torso and genitalia. (Never any male nudes, of course.) And then we move on to hats -- hats worn by American men, in the Depression, mostly. Of one, by Dorothea Lange, Dyer has this to say, talking about an exhausted, destitute Dust Bowl refugee, squatting on arid ground, wearing a hat: "His boots are covered in dust, his hands are a pair of shrivelled potatoes and, to cap it all, he is wearing the most battered hat in the entire history of the Depression. I've made an exhaustive inventory of all the hats in as many photos as I could find and this one takes what remains of a crumbling biscuit."
At about this time, around a hundred pages in, I had to set the book aside and try to think. What was it that was riling me, that was getting under my skin? The author, who seemed so profligate with his (to me) asinine statements, or the majority of photographers he'd chosen for discussion, who seemed to have nothing better to do with their lives than to hound blind musicians on the street or in the subway or to photograph their girlfriends' private parts, or photography itself, which, of all the arts, insists on seeing humans (and everything else) as mere objects?
No, it's not the photographers, some of whom pioneered this interesting art, and certainly not photography, which includes as its subject the entire and always fascinating exterior world, but the willfully irritating choices of Dyer, who by juxtaposing a blind beggar, a blind beggar and a blind beggar in one work after another, sets out to try the reader's patience, and succeeds beyond all expectations. (Think of the one-note composer La Monte Young, who in his first days in New York scratched a string bean on a hardwood floor until someone in the audience shrieked, "All right, La Monte, you win!" (At least Young was ironic and amusing.)
Occasionally, Dyer presents a beautiful and interesting picture with just a brief bit of commentary: Stieglitz's "Steerage," taken in 1907, and his "The Street, Fifth Avenue," taken around 1900. Really wonderful work! But then it's back to park benches, both broken and in repair, and doorways with brooms beside them, and then Dyer feels the need to bring Ornette Coleman, Max Roach and John Coltrane into the discussion. Which is when, if we were on a date and he'd been going on this way all night, I'd have to get a headache and go on home.
Not to say there isn't a genuine use for this book. It may serve to provide the beginnings of an inner life for those who don't have the time to build one for themselves. Or its market may be people who don't have the brains to be as smart as they might want, but yearn above all to be "intellectual," to pursue the life of art and maybe even the counterculture -- what's left of it. Look over your upcoming Christmas lists. You'll find more than a few who might profit from this book, learn something and maybe even like it very much.
Sunday in Book World
* Richard Clarke's new spy novel scares Gary Hart.
* Andrew Weil ages gracefully.
* Joyce Carol Oates offs a suburban mom.
* Queen Isabella offs her husband.
* Vikram Seth charms Jonathan Yardley.