So how do you shape this shapelessness into a coherent form? Geoff Dyer's delightful answer in The Ongoing Moment is to write about photography photographically: which is to say, as a series of stills, each entirely self-contained and at the same time each linked to all the others.
It takes a while to get what he is up to. The book's title - a paraphrase of Cartier-Bresson's paraphrase of de Retz's famous "defining moment" - seems laboured and clumsy. Dyer's defence of his writing - "I might not be a photographer, but I see the kind of photographs I might have taken if I were" - sounds ominously like those Daily Mail readers who know nothing about art other than what they like. Who cares if Dyer has fantasies about being William Eggleston or a soft spot for Paul Strand's photograph, Blind Woman, New York (1916)? Why should this interest us? And what, other than showing off, is with the whole Eng Lit thing? The endless quotations from Wordsworth, not to mention - among many, many others - from Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Eliot, Rilke, Shelley, EM Forster, Kafka, Nietzsche and Oliver Wendell Homes?
The answer to all this is that Dyer is a master of the close-up, a hawk-eyed spotter of small coincidences. Strand's blind woman, he notes, has oddly different eyes: a clouded right one that stares forward and is clearly blind, and an apparently seeing (though actually sightless) left eye that stares off at an angle. Oddly, Dyer tells us, Strand had adapted his clunky box camera in just the same way: a dummy lens fixed to its side fooled subjects into thinking that someone else was being photographed. The blind woman's picture was taken with this camera, although in her case Strand's subterfuge - his turning a blind eye - was pointless: not being able to see, the woman couldn't be fooled by it. She is both a portrait by Strand and a picture of his own practice, with the ironic addition that she has outdone him in trick lenses.
You've barely absorbed the impishness of this analysis than Dyer is off again through time and space: following blind beggars backwards to Lewis Hine, then forwards to Garry Winogrand, back again to Walker Evans and then backwards and forwards at the same time to the young and old Kertész. From Kertész's blind accordion player, we find ourselves at Ed Clark's Going Home - the picture of a weeping (though sighted) black serviceman playing the accordion as FDR's funeral train passes by - and from there we go to... well, it could be to anywhere, really: to photographs with black subjects, or to shots with cortèges or music or hands or hats in them, or - Dyer's eye for coincidence transcending mere medium - to sonnets by Wordsworth or apophthegms from Nietzsche.
Actually, where we pitch up is at William Gedney's picture of Diane Arbus photographing beauty queens. And if you're wondering why we're here, then, long after we've left it behind, blindness suddenly pops up again in Arbus's series of shots of the blind, and in the way those shots became a symbol of Arbus's own reticence as a photographer; her desperation not to be seen. If you're looking for a literary model for Dyer's writing, then you could do worse than remember his hero, Borges, whose ambition "to reconcile the simultaneous and the successive" - life as it's lived and life as it is written about - has clearly shaped this book. If that isn't coincidental enough, then you might also reflect that Borges had his picture taken by Diane Arbus; and if you're after a really big coincidence, that the novelist, like Strand's beggar and Kertész's accordionist, was blind.
From all this you'll gather that the beauty of The Ongoing Moment isn't just in Dyer's ability to zoom in on small felicities but to pan out from these to the coincidental bigger picture. If you're planning to lash out £20 on this book in the belief that you're getting a manual of critical theory, then put your wallet away: Dyer's aim isn't so much to educate as to engage. A constellation of scattered facts apart, The Ongoing Moment doesn't tell you a single useful thing about photography, other than just how amazing it is and how it contrives to amaze.
- More about: