I had begun Geoff Dyer’s book length essay on photography a few weeks before I started my course. In fact, reading it was part of my motivation for choosing to study photography. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I’m probably ‘OK’ at using a camera, the bits I struggle with are contextualising my pictures and exploring concepts further than a couple of frames. This book is all about the development of photography, its exploration of concepts and placing both the practice and the pictures into context – perfect then!
I haven’t read Dyer before, but he has a reputation for writing studies of subject matter that he claims not to be an expert in. One of his previous books was about jazz, written as someone who had only ever listened to it. At the beginning of this book, he tells us that he doesn’t own a camera.
The book is a history of the development of (American) photography. It isn’t ordered chronologically or by photographer (42 are featured), but rather by the subject matter that they shared. For example, fences, streets, benches, blind beggars, hats etc. It is cleverly constructed with the point at which he switches between these subjects often brought together in a single photograph. The blind beggar has a hat, so we’re on to hats…
Within this structure, he’ll compare the style and approach of the various photographers to this similar subject matter and often, explain how one photographer will reference another’s work within their pictures, sometimes decades later. All of this is explained in a non-technical manner – there is no talk of shutter speed or aperture – it is all about the image and the message.
Throughout the book, a shadowy character in a long, dark coat and hat lurks in many of the pictures. I loved the idea that this was the same person who lingers in, and is present throughout, this entire history.
I have referred to the book a couple of times already on my learning log (here and here) and it has inspired the photographs contained in those posts – images that I am very pleased with. There are other quotes and passages that I have made notes of that I intend developing further, my favourite of which is a quote from Walker Evans. He liked to ‘suggest people by their absence’ and Dyer furthers this with ‘few things are more suggestive of absence than empty chairs’.
The book occasionally assumes a familiarity with the photographs it discusses. Unless you have this, the poorly reproduced images in the book won’t cut it and like me, you’ll need to read it with Google Images alongside.
This is the first book of its type that I have read. My photography reading is usually journal or magazine based and so always limited in the depth to which a subject can be explored. My previous studies have been in engineering, a subject where things can be proven and where, if you do X, Y will happen. Reading, and in turn writing, about art is something I expect to find difficult throughout this course. As an example of why, in this book Dyer often dedicated many pages to a photograph that I would delete from the back of the camera. On page 281 we are shown Dorothea Lange’s El Cerrito Trailer Camp. I understand how it fits into the narrative, bringing together several strands, but on what merits did it get there in the first place? I also understand that it is from a larger body of work by one of the greatest photographers in history, and probably needs to be considered as part of that whole, but in the book we are offered only this single, mediocre image (I expect hate mail).
This is where I need to develop my knowledge of the subject, reading the classic books on the practice (and art) and developing my photographic vocabulary to be able to express my opinions and feelings on such texts and the photographs they explore. I’ll also learn why these images have become important to the history image making.