A lively culture needs amateurs. No one has a better chance of spotting the peculiarities of an art form than one who comes to it anew. Britain has lately given the world two tremendous practitioners in the school of continuing education: Alain de Botton and Geoff Dyer. The differences between them are vast, but their general project is the same: to coax a reader along an intellectual journey of their choosing.
Until now, Dyer has accomplished this by constructing a winning persona of bohemian slackerdom in books such as Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It. Happily, he proves he can step out of this now vintage suit of youthful cynicism and still write a terrific book. The Ongoing Moment is his boldly unstructured book about (mostly American) photography. It considers the arterial byways connecting such founders as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand with more recent figures like Nan Goldin and William Eggleston.
This survey does not proceed chronologically. As Dyer's title suggests, "in photography there is no meantime". "Photography, in a way," he writes, "is the negation of chronology." We follow our faithful guide from Walker Evans back to Strand, both harking further back to a poem by Wordsworth, all paving the way for Ben Shan and Garry Winogrand. Each one captured blind beggars on street corners.
Dyer argues that, consciously or not, photographers "are constantly in dialogue with their contemporaries and predecessors". He never indulges in such mumbo-jumbo as Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence", but remains happy to fill us in on rivalries where they exist. For instance, the fact that Stieglitz photographed Strand's former lover Georgia O'Keeffe and then Strand's wife, Beck - all in the nude, of course - gives Dyer ample reason to ponder his desire to dominate.
In this fashion, The Ongoing Moment pulls us into the currents of ideas, images - and lovers - that crackle between photographers. The book opens with total immersion but, gradually, Dyer warms to his subject and helps us get oriented, charmed and, eventually, entertained. It seems odd that he should write this well about photography without even owning a camera.
So where is the viewer in the ongoing moment? It is a testament to this book's power that we shall get our answer any time we sit on a bench, lean on a fire hydrant or put on a hat. In other words, we are its stars.
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