Monday, October 24, 2005

Deconstructing Dyer

Geoff Dyer is regularly promoted with a single quote from The Daily Telegraph which reads: ‘Quite possibly the best living writer in Britain.’ Talk about hedging your bets. 'Best living writer' covers a very wide field and gives no indication of what that means. It sounds good though and certainly works as a come-on.

To better describe Geoff Dyer, what would one say. He is certainly a generalist, a non-specialist and a polymath, which the OED defines as ‘a person of much and varied learning; one acquainted with various subjects of study.’ He is certainly very industrious, having produced a steady stream of books and countless articles for the mainstream press. He is a great traveller, is of the Left and is inspired by two major influences: John Berger (the subject of his first book ‘Ways of Telling: The Works of John Berger’) and D.H.Lawrence (the subject of his greatest book so far ‘Out Of Sheer Rage.’).

He has written three novels (‘The Colout of Memory’, The Search’ and ‘Paris Trance’) and four other works of non-fiction - ‘But Beautiful’ (a superlative study of jazz through imaginative part factual/part novelistic profiles of leading players), ‘The Making of the Somme’ (which explores the landscapes, myths and atmosphere of the First World War), ‘Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It.’ and a collection of essays ‘Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.’

Dyer’s approach to a subject is elliptical, interesting, intelligent and unique. The only other writers that come to mind who employ similar techniques are the late W.G. Sebald and Guy Davenport in his marvelous book ‘The Geography of The Imagination’. Dyer meditates on a subject, roams around it, sniffs at it from all angles, looks for connections. He reinforces his insights and ideas, his vivid characterisations and original thoughts, with a encyclopaedic range of quotes drawn from other authors, a big favourite being the poet Rilke.

All these facets and faculties are on display in Dyer’s just-published book ‘The Ongoing Moment’ {Little, Brown. £20.00] which is nothing short of a personalised history of photography from a very interesting perspective.

From his view, he writes on p212, ‘the history of photography seems to consist of photographers doing personalised versions of a repertoire of scenes, tropes, subject or motifs. This repertoire is constantly expanding and evolving rather fixed, but a surprising number of its components were established at the outset by Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s. Some of these pictures of Talbot’s had been derived, in turn, from earlier templates found in painting.’

Thus the form of the book. No chapters, rather a succession of essays, each of which connects with the next, each built around one of the scenes or subjects described. The book begin strongly with an analysis of pictures of blind people in the street, taken by a variety of photographers across a long time period. Each photo is described in loving detail, giving Dyer full range for his sharp eye and descriptive powers. We learn about the photographers concerned and begin to appreciate how connected many of them are, through subject matter, or through lineage and influence, often paying homage to a key image from the previous generation.

There are forty-two featured photographers, principally American, woven through this catalogue of themes which includes hands, backs, chairs, steps, photos of photographers, photographs by one photographer that looks like the work of another photographer, empty beds, watching the world from a hotel room window, from a car, from a train, clouds, drive-ins, barber shops et al.

There is a hint of madness throughout as Dyer digs into the metaphysical almost occult business of taking a photo of something. Diane Arbus believed she could see the suicide in people, written in advance in their faces. Gary Winograd became ‘seized by a mania for photographing so intense that it took the place of seeing.’ In the last six years of life in Los Angeles, ‘he made more than a third of a million exposures that he never even looked at.’ W. Eugene Smith, it seems, did a similar thing in Pittsburg, making over 10,000 images of every facet of the city.

Everyone in this narrative seems to connect with everyone else in a vast cat’s cradle of Dyer’s making. His whole approach forces one to think in fresh ways. He refuses to be bound to any conventions of traditional art history or narrative. He can get too intense and convoluted, losing this reader in places, only to pull one back in with another surprising angle, attitude or well-chosen quotation. In fact much of the book is written like jazz improvisations, weaving around the theme, illustrating it with runs, flourishes and licks.

This is certainly the most exciting book on photography I have read since ‘Motion Studies:Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge.’ by Rebecca Solnit.

Free-thinking, non-academic, non-specialist eloquent stylists are always welcome in any age. Dyer’s struggle to breakout of the stranglehold of convention and to establish his own unique perspective on such disparate fields of study is to be applauded and enjoyed.

See also:
* Geoff Dyer at the Complete Review
* Absolute Write
* Substantial archive of Dyer's journalism for The Guardian and The Observer here
* 'The Outsider' is a truly excellent piece by Dyer on Dianne Arbus in Vogue [November 2005]. Doesn't appear to be available on-line.

Dyer begins ‘The Ongoing Moment’ with the following sentence: ‘I am not the first researcher to draw inspiration from a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ described by Borges.’

No indeed. The introduction to my book ‘Curious Facts’, written Jan 14th 1979, reads in part:

‘Unusual classification systems destroy traditional patterns of thought, forcing us to reexamine our assumptions. A classic example of this is quoted in the preface to The Order of Things (1970) by French philosopher Michel Foucault. It comes from the blind cosmic librarian Jorge Luis Borges, who quotes a certain Chinese encyclopedia in which it is written that:

Animals are divided into: a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, 1) etcetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.’

Foucault read this and his book ‘grew out of the laughter that shattered ... all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography— breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things.’

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