Essential Reading: The ongoing moment – Geoff Dyer

This book took some getting in to. Dyers writing style was not initially reader friendly. In fact it seemed to be all over the place, with musings on photography interspersed with poetry. This was quite off-putting, but I’m glad I stuck with it, because actually, I found the book to be a very enjoyable ramble through Dyers insights and observations on some of histories most influential photographers and their work.

I found the content to be quite opinionated (i.e. from Dyers perspective), and images and photographers were discussed contextually in relation to each others work. Dyer offered insights into how the meaning of certain images has changed  over time, due to the shift in context and the way in which semiotic language has changed, but more importantly, what the meaning of an image may have been according to the photographer, at the time an exposure was made. Dyer looks at individual photographs in-depth, dissecting them and opening up debate, by discussing the interactions and narrative content, as well as composition and use of colour. This is backed up by also looking in-depth at some select photographers. I was left feeling like I’d read a series of mini-biographies. Dyer delves in to the personal and professional lives of these artists to help us understand their methods (and in some cases madness). He also helps us to understand how their work relates to the work of other artists, and how many of the prolific photographers of their day interacted with each other. Of note is the fact that this book is not divided into chapters. There are no separate topics. Instead, there is a constant preamble, which flits back and forth in quite a fervent manner, which can make for difficult and heavy reading, but which is also quite refreshing and entertaining.

My interest was initially peaked  whilst reading about an apparent lack of planning and preparation for photographic projects. The planning of assignments is not one of my strong points, so it’s nice to see that some of histories best known photographers have done away with it altogether. Robert Frank apparently said on his Guggenheim scholarship application (for his project The Americans) that the project would “shape itself as it proceeds and is essentially elastic”. I have no doubt that Frank still had a strong idea of what he wanted to achieve, and how he would achieve it, but did not plan in great detail each shot. Dorothea Lange is quoted as saying “To know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting”. Lange is best known for her work as a documentary photographer, and I can see this approach working well in this genre of photography where objectivity is vital, as is candid reportage. But in order to create highly aesthetic work in an abstract, surrealist or modernist style, surely the opposite is true? The photographer must already have an idea of the image he/she is trying to create?

Another area I struggle with, is confrontation. I love street photography, and I love to photograph people. The human condition is by far the most interesting subject for photography (to me), and I’d love nothing more than to get up close to my subjects with a camera. Unfortunately, we live in an age of suspicion, and despite the constant CCTV surveillance on our streets, people seem to inherently dislike their photo being taken by strangers. This is probably for fear of candid photo’s appearing on social media in unflattering poses or compromising situations. I’ve had  my fair share of run-ins whilst photographing people in public. It was therefore interesting to read that Paul Strand used to attach a lens to the side of his camera to create an impression of photographing something else, in order to catch people unaware. He states that by doing this he was “being true” to his subjects by capturing the real them.

In looking at the work of Ed Clark, the composition of his photograph Going Home, 1945¹ is analysed. Dyer points out that the sense of pain and suffering is heightened by the crop, due to the frame partially amputating the arm/hand. There is also a sense of this being an official photograph thanks to the photographers point of view approximating that of the cortege. It is almost as if we are seeing this scene from the funeral procession. Both of these points are valid, and although subtle, they help to add real impact to this documentary image. This is worth noting for future reference.

Dyer looks at the narrative sequence of images, and although it may seem obvious, a narrative can work best if the sequence has multiple arrangements. That is to say that a narrative doesn’t have to be linear. Multiple narratives can be achieved by inter-linking images in a web-like arrangement (think gallery installation), or by having a disrupted narrative, where the story ends at the beginning or flits back and forth. This in itself can bring an element of surprise to a story (think Pulp Fiction).

Next we look at “Self Labeled Photographs”. That is photographs which include signs or text. Reading the text obliges us to read the photograph, and can add meaning in the form of Relay. This often carries more weight than a caption because it is an integral part of the image and is contained within the frame, therefore becoming part of the narrative, not the context. Some not so subtle examples can be found in Lee Friedlander’s series Letters from the people.

There are large portions of the book that are dedicated to the subjects of photographs or to elements of a photograph that have specific meaning. Some examples:

  • Hands – Can contain many meanings, such as building the part from the whole. Can be clasped in solidarity or in prayer. A photo concentrating on the detail can still provide the “bigger picture”.
  • Hats – In depression era America, the hat represented social standing. It became a means of codification (semiotics) within photography, provided the viewer has a knowledge of the era.
  • Beds – Made and unmade, and their connotations of death.
  • Photographers as the subjects. Begs the question as to whether the image is about the subject or the photographer. This can only be answered based on the context and narrative.
  • Benches – lots of bloody benches. Dyer almost makes you feel sorry for them!
  • Fences, windows, gas stations and roads to name but a few.

As mentioned above, Dyer takes us on a detailed journey into the lives of some influential photographers. This highlights many of the similarities between these creative minds and also many of the differences. Alfred Stieglitz, despite being highly acclaimed, was very aloof, where as Weegee was very much in touch with the lower classes. Both Stieglitz and Edward Weston found the act of photographing “herculean or back breaking” – I can empathise. Since I’ve started to formally study the art, a lot of the fun has been lost and it has become a bit of a chore (at times). Many photographers, including Stieglitz and Weston were sexually involved with their subjects (and perhaps each others subjects/partners). Does this mean that a relationship is required between photographer and subject to create “art” photographs? I don’t necessarily mean sexual, but in order to really capture emotion, eroticism, pain etc there must be a need to intimately understand your subject? We also see that the masters of photography were highly critical of each others work. Cartier-Bresson is quoted as saying (in the 30’s) “The world is going to pieces, and people like Adams & Weston are photographing rocks”. I guess that this just goes to show that even the “masters” have different opinions on what is art, or at least what is important!

As I’m approaching Assignment 1, I found a comparison between 2 similar images (one by Frank and one by Lange) to be quite enlightening, particularly in understanding how context can have such an impact on an images meaning. In Lange’s image The Road West, New Mexico, 1938³ , viewed in the context of her work for the FSA, we see a road to economic salvation and infinite promise. There are no other vehicles on this road, it is a one way journey. We see the scarcity of resources, and read this as a story of the migrant workers. In Franks image US 285, New Mexico, 1955-56♠, we are faced with a very similar scene. The hint of a car coming towards us on the opposite carriageway gives us the option of return. The light on the road gives us a feeling of movement, motion and speed. In the context of Franks series The Americans, this image is about covering ground. Despite their similarities, given the different contexts, the meanings are worlds apart. It would be fair to say that Lange’s photograph is about the search for work, and Frank’s is about the search for works of art.

Having reached the end of the book, I was quite happy to find an advert for the “Geoff On” App, which is available on Apple and Android. Having downloaded it to my phone, it features essays by Dyer on a multitude of subjects, some of which are related to art, artists and photographers. I’ve not had a chance to look at it in depth yet, but look forward to doing so in the near future.

app

Bibliography:

Dyer, G (2005). The ongoing moment. Canongate books ltd, GB.

References:

¹ Ed Clark (2005) ‘Going Home, 1945’. [photograph] The ongoing moment. GB: Canongate books ltd, p.39

² http://fraenkelgallery.com/portfolios/letters-from-the-people – accessed 16 Dec 14

³ Dorothea Lange (2005) ‘The road West, New Mexico, 1938’. [photograph] The ongoing moment. GB: Canongate books ltd, p.221

♠ Robert Frank (2005) ‘US 285, New Mexico, 1938’ from The Americans. [photograph] The ongoing moment. GB: Canongate books ltd, p.223

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