I’m still unsure where I got the reference to get a copy of this book, in the flurry of new course purchasing that my birthday allocation of Amazon vouchers provided me, this tome came as a forgotten order – like a present used to be, not from a list of “what would you like for Christmas – c’mon we need a list?”. This book had somehow entered the room under the radar and all the more welcome for it being so. (Maybe the reference to it is in one of my log-books that are currently residing in Barnsley in case they needed to provide back-up on the assessment for People and Place – just a guess).
I knew Geoff Dyer had written on John Berger – (Ways of Seeing is next on the current Everest (never-rest) pile of books to be consumed) and he is referenced in the course reader Photography: A Critical Introduction- Wells, Routledge p18/19; so he has some credentials in this visual world I am engrossing myself in. A quick glance through the book as I received suggested that it might indeed be quite pertinent – lots of photographs by Dorothea Lange, by Walker Evans, Atget, Strand, DeCarava, Smith, Winogrand… – over 40 and whilst not a complete who’s who of, essentially twentieth century photography, it covers a strong selection.
There is only one chapter – just over 250 pages – that is cleverly constructed in order to depict how a subject – a hat, a stairway, a barber shop, a park bench and many more subjects have been approached by many photographers and how that ‘approachment’ has been informed and developed by successive artists.
The two towering personalities in the book are, for different reasons, Steiglitz and Evans. Steiglitz is shown to be at once the early promoter of the medium as an art form – solidly behind some of the great American photographers of the early to mid twentieth century – and how, through his personality he reduced his standing as a photographer, as a leader and as, maybe, a human being. Evans though, in this book mainly about documentary photography, sits as a figure that many of the photogrphers reference in their work. How it was that Evans seemed to have taken the shot that these other photographers felt compelled to capture their interpretation of. Evans is the first photographer Dyer mentions and he is there almost at the end on page 246. How it was the Evans guided Frank but dismissed Weston, gave impetus to Winogrand and left Ansel Adams where Bresson had, in the wilderness.
Dyer presents this taxonomic journey through what is almost exclusively American photography with a great sense of the artistry of the image. How it appears very clearly to him that these photographs were taken for a purpose, they each had a meaning – even Winogrand’s meaning which was to take the photograph and not worry about the end result..’It would seem Swarkowski observes with a mixture of wonder and bafflement, “that in his (Winogrand’s) Los Angeles years he made more than a third of a million exposures that he never even looked at”’. P 242
Dyer’s reading of these photographs comes aligned with literary references that I found enlightening and appropriate – from Wordsworth to Whitman; some of them used by the photographers themselves, others by Dyer to explore the meaning of the images he describes. Overall I found this a compelling book, it took the photograph as a document and sought to read it aloud in a way that made sense, from a writer’s perspective I had only one complaint about it and it was to do with language. Steiglitz’s work and influence was rightly discussed at length in association with Strand and of course with O’Keefe. Dyer seems to focus a lot on the relationship Steiglitz had with O’Keefe, how his art faltered and how he centrered his focus on O’Keefe’s body (and that of clouds later, but enough of that already). Steiglitz was infatuated with her body, she was beautiful and a lot younger than he. Steiglitz photographed all her body and the shots that stayed around her lower abdomen, it seems, had Dyer grasping for vernacular. The shot ‘Georgia O’Keefe – Torso 1918-19’ where Steiglitz posed O’Keefe with her legs parted had Dyer asking why we couldn’t see more of her pussy! Her what? “..is (her ‘pussy’) printed like the earlier negative (similar image) so that there is an impenetrable black triangle between her legs.” P79. What’s the problem with discussing the photograph as printed by the photographer, like for example when he talks of Evans’ Barn, Nova Scotia, 1971 “in the penultimate picture of the sequence the framing is tighter still, just the open door and the interior, as black as the screens in Sugimoto’s pictures…”. P220. Dyer doesn’t ask for a bit of dodging to bring out the detail here, so why all of a sudden does he want to do it between O’Keefe’s legs? And what is the nomenclature ‘pussy’ all about? What’s wrong with vagina, vulva?? Discuss the picture the artist has created, not one that you might want to have been created – I think this may say more about Dyer than Stieglitz and is a little disappointing in an otherwise excellent book.
That rant apart, I thoroughly recommend this book, the course it the reader takes, through essentially American photographic art history, from the beginning of the twentieth century up until the sixties or thereabouts, and with perhaps the one exception, it is both engaging and informative and should perhaps be on the critical reading list – along with ALL(?) the others.