The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer
A photograph is a strange thing. In a newspaper or on a webpage, even the most banal picture accompanying an article has a haunting quality, or at least bothersome. It draws the eye. The image offers more than the words; not only information but access to the thing itself. Before and after reading the words, we look at the image and, miraculously, see beyond the page. The photograph is always (as Barthes said) invisible as a photograph.
Then there’s the photograph on its own. It’s not the same. We can look for as long we want but looking isn’t enough. We want something more. There’s something lacking about a photograph on its own. The thing itself isn’t enough. We seek a caption, at least. In its anonymity, the photograph has become all too visible.
The only photograph without a caption in Geoff Dyer’s new book about photographs is the picture on the cover. It is a picture of twenty small snaps of a desert road nowhere in the USA taken by Michael Ormerod. Thirteen of them have numbered stickers attached. Seven don’t. Perhaps the caption is the book itself. After all, you can’t stop here, looking at this desert road for very long. There’s nothing to look at. You must move into the covers of the book and read on. Otherwise …
Otherwise what? This question seems to underlie The Ongoing Moment. What can one do with the time facing a photograph, or facing anything else for that matter? Dyer expresses the question writing about Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of Fifth Avenue around 1901: “To think, there was a time, over a century ago, when this moment was now!”. He imagines the caped figure walking towards the camera looking back to see himself no longer there. But this is impossible: “it is his peculiar destiny … never to arrive at that backward looking vantage point, but to be rendered, momentarily and perpetually, as patient as the waiting horse and the buildings which are still there too.”
From the vantage point of the viewer, Dyer relates the caped figure to other similar figures in other photographs by other photographers such as Paul Strand, André Kertész and Steven Schapiro. This is the professed aim of the book: to look at how different people photographed the same thing. And not only anonymous figures, but hats, streets, doors, fences, steps, desert roads, girlfriends and blind people. He sees so many correlations that he begins to suspect “a strange rule in photography, namely that we never see the last of anyone or anything”. This might be a less melancholy reflection of Barthes’ observation of that “rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead”.
It also indicates our peculiar destiny as readers of photographs, momentarily and perpetually stuck in this backward-looking vantage point. The surprise of ‘now’ returns each time we look at a photograph. We can’t quite grasp it. ‘Now’ is enveloped in darkness. We can sense it in photographs, sense it in a novel, but the most intense experience of Now is the most distant, unexperienced thing. Life and art are as one on this: both depend on the backward-looking vantage point. Could this be why so many creative projects are begun and abandoned: not because the artist is lazy or untalented, but that energy and talent shines too harsh a light into the darkroom of the lived moment? Creativity promises the end of distance and an engagement with the world. But it never delivers. Delivery is an illusion. The willing embrace of the hallucination is the genetic link between Realism and Postmodernism. One alternative is to make that distance part of the project. So it’s significant that Dyer’s study concentrates on photography from the first half of the 20th Century when form and content were conjoined. The technology of photography did not allow one to have priority over the other. Dyer has some interesting things to say about what happened when the technology improved.
Dyer has written The Ongoing Moment as a single, 254-page chapter, as if to emphasise that the sense that all photographs are one; or at least linked in a huge electronic tapestry. There are some very engaging stories behind the photographs and their photographers. The organising device works well as Dyer moves deftly through personalities, relationships and careers. It is certainly a relief from squinting at the tiny reproductions of the photographs. His trail through the photography of blind people is particularly good. Many famous names photographed the famous blind author Jorge Luis Borges, whose playful taxonomic system Dyer uses in the first line of the book to mitigate his own procedure. He observes that Richard Avedon’s portrait “lacks psychological focus” and wonders if blindness “impairs the reciprocity of intention on which the photographer depends”. It’s either this, he thinks, or it reveals the photographer’s complacency in sticking to a method for photographing sighted people. The question gives the photograph a depth it previously lacked. He’s also quite funny. He asks a similar question of Avedon’s photo of Harold Bloom, who, while not blind, has closed his eyes: “The impression is of a man so swaddled in self-regard that he can read books – and possibly even write about them as well – with his eyes shut.” Perhaps, he wonders, the photographer has taken a photo with his eyes shut too. After all, who could possibly recognise Harold Bloom in this impression?
Diane Arbus also photographed Borges. Her interest in blindness was “part of a more general fascination with what could not be seen in photographs.” While we believe in the invisible world, she said, the blind person believes in the visible. The photograph might thereby reveal and conceal both faiths. Borges himself once wrote: “I suspected once that any human life, however intricate and full it might be, consisted in reality of one moment: the moment when a man knows for all time who he is.” Perhaps it is the moment revealed by such a photograph. This is why it haunts us. Borges suggests, that he changed his mind. He doesn’t believe it anymore. But the second thought is also a moment of photography. What is closest to us is the distance that keeps us from certainty.
The book closes with a look at the photography of James Nachtwey, all of it taken in the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia. There are photographs of violence, pain and death. Dyer says that these photographs “are a kind of destiny for the medium as a whole, a place where photography has always had the potential to end up.” Unfortunately, I’d say, this is a place of sentimentality and Schadenfreude. Perhaps these images offer a necessary lesson in the temptations of unreflecting voyeurism, though Dyer seems to admire the work. Otherwise, they are out of place.
The Ongoing Moment is styled by the publisher as a ‘non-fiction work of art’; a form Dyer ‘has made his own’. It is an unnecessary overstatement. Dyer merely seeks the best form with which to approach his subject. Certainly this is unusual. But what does ‘best’ mean? Dyer explains that as a teenager he was obsessed with DH Lawrence. He loved photographs of Lawrence ‘possibly even more’ than his novels. He wrote Out of Sheer Rage about trying to write a book about DH Lawrence. It’s clear that instead of making a normal, sober effort, he sought a form to enabled him to include the experience of distance inherent to the obsession. So he adopted the fugal style of Thomas Bernhard who had himself written a novel (Concrete) about an obsessive individual trying to write a book about the composer Felix Mendelsshon. It would be tempting to make the rote, journalistic gesture of calling all this writing about writing, just as it would be tempting to say The Ongoing Moment is writing about photography, as if we all knew what that implied. But it is much more than that.