The Ongoing Moment
By Geoff Dyer
Pantheon, 285 pp., illustrated, $28.50
''We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing," declared Henri Cartier-Bresson, ''and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again." Cartier-Bresson was the high priest of 20th-century photography: He founded the photojournalist collective Magnum Photos, and his sleekly ironic and perfectly composed black-and-white images hang as posters in shops, dorm rooms, and travel agents'. For Cartier-Bresson, great pictures capture what he called ''the decisive moment," which was the miraculous instant when a human event finds its perfect composition in the viewfinder of a camera.
''I don't even own a camera," writes Geoff Dyer in the introduction to his latest book, ''The Ongoing Moment." ''The only time I take a picture is when tourists ask me to take one of them, with their camera." Dyer is the author of a series of unquantifiable and extraordinary books. ''Out of Sheer Rage" begins as a critical study of the novelist D. H. Lawrence but soon dissolves into a ranting, touching memoir of his failure to write such a book; ''But Beautiful" is a fictional series of mini-autobiographies of American jazz musicians of the 1950s and '60s; the tone and content of Dyer's collection of travel writings, ''Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It," are best suggested by the title. In ''The Ongoing Moment," he takes on the history of American photography.
The title is a giveaway. Dyer cites Cartier-Bresson only in passing, but his book is a frontal assault on the notion that photography is an art form best studied in isolation, or even best written about by photographers. In place of Cartier-Bresson's ''decisive moment," Dyer offers us the ongoing moment: a history of photographers in dialogue with each other, reacting to each other's work and the troubles of their times, paying homage, and playing practical jokes. In Dyer's version, nothing ever vanishes.
As Dyer observes, ''Photographers sometimes take pictures of each other; occasionally they take pictures of each other at work; more usually they take photographs -- or versions -- of each other's work." Paul Strand in 1916, Edward Weston in 1937, Joel Meyerowitz in 1976, and Michael Ormerod sometime in the 1980s all took photographs of white picket fences; Dorothea Lange photographed a deserted gas station in 1940, followed by Jack Leigh in 1971, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in 1975; more strikingly, Ben Shahn in 1932, Walker Evans in 1938, and André Kertész in 1959 all took photographs of blind accordion players on the streets of New York.
Dyer's insight that photographers obsessively return to the same key subjects is not necessarily a new one, for the simple reason that these photographers presumably knew what they were doing. But the great strength of this book lies not in the striking fact but in what Dyer does with it. Dyer has the naturally generous impulse of a great storyteller, and in his hands a detail willfully migrates toward a larger pattern.
''The story of the Depression can be told quite simply through photographs of men's hats," claims Dyer. In photographs of the 1920s, hats are everywhere and ''the men wearing them are brimful of hope and expectation," but after the great crash of October 1929, things change. In Lange's 1933 photograph of a San Francisco bread line, one desperately hungry man looks out at us from a sea of hats, his battered fedora pulled low over his ears. By 1934, men are sleeping in the streets, using their hats as pillows, and in 1937 John Vachon captured a blind beggar holding his hat out on a street corner in Washington, D.C. The hat survives, but only just: In the early 1950s, in a new and affluent America, Garry Winogrand took a picture of a smart new Trilby sitting on its own on a hat stand.
For those who believe that the devil is in the details, this book practices nothing less than witchcraft and, on at least one occasion, the resurrection of the dead. In 1900, Alfred Stieglitz photographed Fifth Avenue in the snow: In the middle of the scene, flanked by carriages and horses, walks a small figure in a black coat. He appears again, in 1913, dragging a sled through Central Park, in a photograph by Strand, and he's still dragging the same sled 40 years later, across a different New York park, in a photograph by Kertész. In 1961, he is walking away from us in a photograph by Steve Schapiro, and by 1969 he's halfway down a deserted Brooklyn street captured by William Gedney.
It would be absurdly naive to think that this was the same man recurring, but at the same time it would be literal-minded not to, and part of what makes Dyer such a likable critic is his ready sense of wonder. Close to the end of ''The Ongoing Moment" Dyer simply places two photographs side by side and lets them speak. The first was taken by James Nachtwey in 1999, and shows an Albanian woman on the back of a truck. Her healthy face is hollowed with grief, and she holds her right hand to her mouth. The second was taken by Lange in 1936, and shows a migrant mother in Calfornia: Her bent right hand cups her mouth. The two women, 60 years and tens of thousands of miles apart, are identical. The shocking coincidence of the two images is far beyond questions of similarity, of quotation or citation; rather, by the end of this book, we are inclined to believe in the small miracle of the ongoing moment.
Dyer makes us want to look at photographs, and then look again, and, from them, to see the world anew. This is a book about photographs, but the best of it is only tangentially related to the printed image. When he describes one subject's face as ''downturned like the mouth of someone so habituated to unhappiness as to feel comfortable with it," or when he notes that ''At a certain point friendships arrive at a balance between memories of shared times and the beckoning future," he is talking not about photographs but about photography's great subject, which is the condition of being in the world.
Daniel Swift has written for The New York Times, The Nation, and Bookforum.