11th October 2012
I was led to believe that Geoff Dyer is not a photographer himself and his non-fiction writings cover many different subjects of which he claims not to be an expert. My reading of this is perhaps false modesty as this book certainly seems to me that he fully understands the art of photography, even if he isn’t a practitioner of the physical act of taking photographs.
When you get into the book, and at first I found it a little strange, but that’s perhaps me just getting used to his style of writing, you become aware that he’s either done an awful lot of in-depth research before writing, or he’s really into the subject of photography as art and his knowledge has been attained over many years of being immersed in the subject. The fact that his wife, Rebecca Wilson, is a director of the Saatchi Gallery has something to do with his interest in art I’ve no doubt, but such detailed knowledge comes from love of the subject.
Although the text covers a whole century, and a bit more, the main focus appears to be on four artists, Stieglitz, Strand, Weston and Evans. Other photographers play their supporting roles throughout but they are all linked back to one or more of these four. I found this concentration extremely satisfying as I learned more about the people themselves than is normally the case when their art only forms the basis of the book. Here their interplay socially and photographically is discussed; the way they imitated each other, intentionally or not, either as an homage or as criticism. But most of all the way the images are discussed as a moving script through the century and how they changed as time went by but yet remained eternally the same and influenced many others as a consequence is the most wonderful eulogy to times past and an introduction to the future to follow. It really is a page turner and I was sad when the end came and I had to put the book down, it wasn’t my copy unfortunately.
The images contained are quite small, other than for twelve full-colour plates just over half-way through, and as a result it’s often very difficult to see some of the detail he’s describing. Having said that, it doesn’t detract from the content and Dyer follows a couple of themes for quite some time. Early on he introduces the blind and their apparent penchant for playing the piano-accordion, mostly for making a living it would seem, and the way that this sight attracted all his photographers at one time or another, possibly because the blind can’t see the photographer and adjust their portrayal of themselves making the resulting image more natural than any other that could be taken of a sighted person. The same is true of benches, which come somewhere up the scale of resting places from lying down in the street, the lowest, to sitting on a rocking chair, at the top. Hats are an all purveying force, along with the backs of passers-by and shuffling figures.
I’m sure that I’ll make a point of reading this book again to gain more ‘juice’ from the detailed analysis of reasons for making the tropes by these inspirational photographers.