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After seeing the Scott McFarland exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago, I decided to learn more about the history of photography. Luckily for me, Geoff Dyer’s latest book, The Ongoing Moment, recently came out in paperback and is about just that.
The book looks at the entire history of photography, focusing mostly on pictures taken in the United States by Americans. Of course, since it’s a book by Geoff Dyer, it isn’t your normal dry study of the art – its fluid chapters focus on reoccurring images (hats, hands, signs, benches, backs, stairs, etc.) that tie noted photographers together (Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus). The result is a somewhat successful look at how photographers have “conversed” not only through actual, physical meetings and relationships, but also through emulation and homage, whether conscious or unconscious.
The book is a great introductory for someone like me, who could only named one or two famous photographers and even then couldn’t tell you much about them ( like, “Ansel Adams likes mountains”). Dyer, who is isn’t so much an expert in photography as someone with a deep interest, doesn’t assume you know anything, and doesn’t try to teach you everything so much as to conduct closer studies about certain pictures or sets of pictures while quoting from various art critics and theorists.
Although I appreciated the book and learned a lot, though, it’s certainly not Dyer’s best work. Unlike Out of Sheer Rage and But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, this effort is a bit drier and a bit less creative. Dyer mentions in his acknowledgments that his wife through this book didn’t have enough of him in it, and I agree – what has made his books unique (and so loved by me) is the integration of his journey researching the book with the final product – his discovery of the information and his own interest in the people behind the art he discusses makes him a truly different and innovative writer. The Ongoing Moment, though, is a more traditional approach, and, therefore, a bit harder to wade though.
There are moments when Dyer slips into his natural style – the chapters about Stieglitz, his wife Georgia O’Keefe, his protégé Strand, and Strand’s his wife Rebecca (who looked eerily like O’Keefe) are the best in the book. Through various nudes that the two photographers took of each other’s wives, Dyer illustrates the somewhat weird, somewhat touching love-square that the four shared (which finally ended with the two women abandoning their husbands for each other). It’s Dyer doing what he is best at – tying art to the personal lives of artists just as he ties may of his own books’ subjects to himself, the author. Especially after reading these chapters, the rest of the book left me wanting as much heart as I found with these four.
Still, it was a great way to learn some of the basics of American photography and some of the ideas and philosophies that surround and inspire it. It might also be an interesting read for someone who does know a lot about photography but is interested in the connections and conflicts between some of the better-known photographers over the last hundred or so years.
In the book, Dyer writes about how some photographs are more about the subjects while others are more by the photographer (is this photography more of Queen Elizabeth or by Cecil Beaton?). In The Ongoing Moment, I’ll say that it is more about photography than by Geoff Dyer. Personally, I’d rather read a book that is more by Geoff Dyer – Such as Out of Sheer Rage or his essays, Yoga for People who Can’t be Bothered to do it. Although I doubt I’d be more interested in a book about photography written by anyone else.