Early on in this canny, freewheeling essay on photography, Geoff Dyer notes the near impossibility of communing with the image without conjuring up the quorum of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and John Berger. I suspect he (almost) resists citing his critical predecessors less from wariness at rehearsing their adages than because he senses an inescapable stylistic debt. Photography, alone among the arts, has a 20th-century critical canon that is remarkable for its subjectivity, for an insistence on a personal (often melancholic) response to the image. Dyer’s, likewise, is less a history or anatomy of photography than a witty, sometimes doleful, dérive around a few of its monuments. Like Barthes, he claims no special expertise except his own fascination; he doesn’t even own a camera. What he does have is a knack for turning obtuse detail into telling evidence, as in his scurrilous assertion that a photograph of venerable critic Harold Bloom, with his eyes closed, shows ‘a man so swaddled in self-regard that he can read books – and possibly even write about them as well – with his eyes shut’.
In an essay on Robert Frank, Ian Penman has written: ‘You are never going to live in some still strange meditative thing-free desert. You are here, and these are your things.’ Dyer seems to see that message everywhere: time and again, he says (whatever its biographical motives or formal ends), photography returns us to the same dumb things. These are not the notional ‘things in themselves’, nor some airy archetypes; they are, rather, ghostly avatars of each other. The same objects recur with uncanny regularity: doorways, barber’s shops, ruins and roads to nowhere. Men in hats and dark overcoats smudge the grey weather in André Kertesz and Dorothea Lange. Chairs, fences, beds and benches rhyme endlessly into the distance in the work of Paul Strand, Brassaï, Edward Weston and Garry Winogrand. Blind beggars step out of August Sander onto subway trains for Bruce Davidson to photograph; doorways open out of Eugène Atget and William Henry Fox Talbot into interiors by Walker Evans and William Eggleston.
Photographers seem to imitate one another in ways that are quite inexplicable by influence or environment. It is as if there is a drama going on elsewhere, among all these oddly familiar props, that great photographers sometimes stumble on and shoot from the wings. As it happens, there is: it’s called ‘life’. For all his playful insistence on a sort of Borgesian mirroring among the stars in his photographic firmament (he has a liking for images by one photographer that resemble those of another), Dyer is actually a critic of earthbound, classical tastes. He has an affinity with a documentary realism that precludes, apparently, the histories of Surrealist, Conceptual, vernacular or commercial photography. More to the point, The Ongoing Moment is a book about a specifically American epoch: roughly from Alfred Stieglitz to Philip-Lorca diCorcia: a century-wide expanse in which everyday matter is made meaningful. Dyer’s canon may be narrow, but he discovers there a deep vein of ‘the poetry of comprehensive contingency’.