the on-going moment, Geoff Dyer

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, is 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? “ (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.

Early Social Documentary

I’ve held back from starting the coursework whilst attempting to collate the previous module’s work for assessment, that’s done now. I have looked at the course notes a few times and after wandering around the various assignments I have tried to stay in Assignment One – “Social Documentary”. And I was interested to see various coincidences/references to previous work in the course

It was a curious coincidence that one of the research suggestions was a Youtube “Masters of Photography” video entitled Alfred Steiglitz: The Eloquent Eye (1999) . I say coincidence as I had just recently recorded a PBS broadcast of another “Master of Photography” film on Ansel Adams.

It was Steiglitz of course who provide one of Adams’ first one man shows at the “Place”  in New York and the key motivation that Steiglitz provided Adams is another coincidence here. The film on Adams didn’t change my view of him; clearly still a seminal figure in the development of the medium of photography in the early to mid twentieth century, a campaigner for the environment and, when other photographers saw the need to document the plight of the people during the recession, Adams decided to continue photographing the wilderness. Whereas Steiglitz will be remembered for not only his photography, but also for the work in nurturing some key painters and photographers as well as being the first to bring Picasso in a one man show to America. He saw the need to bring credibility and respect for photography as a medium and worked very to do so, and to a large extent he helped form the notion that a photograph could be a work of art.

And then there were the references to some of the pioneers of photography, perhaps more specifically documentary photography and I remembered a debate I had on the WeAreOca site soon after I enrolled see here Reading through the thread again after this time I think the arguments still hold well, from both sides – though I still hold that Fenton still viewed a truth not available to the masses, but then I’m still not sure he was all that interested in them. Both Brady (also mentioned in the early references in the course) and Fenton were acknowledged “shapers” of the landscape, moving the scenery to elicit a stronger narrative pull for the viewer. Only a few months ago I would still have held strong views about the photographers need to record and not to interfere; I now see that as naïve. Naïve in the sense that even a different perspective of the same scene can draw a different response, and to ensure, as best as the photographer can, to communicate either a strong editorial comment or, to leave the viewer in a state of indeterminacy – by design, is now something I feel as quite important. I have written about Fenton here also

And finally there is the mention of another iconic image, that of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. Radio 3 had a dramatisation of the taking of this image – the programme is no longer available on download but I have recorded and will enjoy listening to it again.

No doubt these familiar names will surface again.